Tampa Custody Attorney

Understanding Tillman v. Jenkins: A Critical Examination of Custody Rights

Child custody cases can be complex, particularly when they involve disputes between parents and other family members. The case of Tillman v. Jenkins sheds light on these complexities, focusing on the interplay between a parent’s constitutional rights and the best interests of the child. As an Asheville custody lawyer, it is essential to understand the nuances of such cases to provide effective legal counsel. This blog post delves into the details of the Tillman v. Jenkins case, highlighting its implications and the legal standards it underscores.

Background of the Case

Tillman v. Jenkins involves a custody dispute between Lashunda Tillman (“Plaintiff”) and Sasha Jenkins (“Defendant”), centering on the custody of Defendant-Mother’s two minor children. The children had been primarily under the care of their father until his untimely death. Following the father’s death, the paternal grandmother (“Grandmother”) filed for emergency custody, which was granted temporarily by the trial court. This arrangement was repeatedly extended through various court orders, with the children remaining in Grandmother’s custody for nearly two years.

Key Issues and Court’s Findings

The case primarily revolves around two significant legal questions:

Standing to Initiate Custody Proceedings: Whether Grandmother had the standing to initiate a custody proceeding against Mother.

Custody Determination Standard: Whether the trial court applied the correct legal standard when awarding custody to Grandmother without finding that Mother was unfit or had acted inconsistently with her parental rights.

Legal Standards for Custody Determination

In North Carolina, custody disputes between a parent and a nonparent (such as a grandparent) are governed by specific legal standards to protect the parent’s constitutional rights. The North Carolina Supreme Court has established that a parent’s right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children must prevail unless it is proven that the parent is unfit or has acted inconsistently with their constitutionally protected status (Price v. Howard, 346 N.C. 68, 484 S.E.2d 528, 1997).

Court’s Analysis and Decision

1. Standing

Grandmother’s standing to initiate custody proceedings was one of the initial challenges. Under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.1(a), any parent, relative, or other person claiming the right to custody of a minor child may initiate an action. Grandmother’s allegations about Mother’s instability, frequent relocations, and inability to provide a stable environment were deemed sufficient to establish standing. The court recognized that although grandparents have the right to bring custody actions, they must still overcome the parent’s constitutionally protected rights by proving unfitness or conduct inconsistent with parental status.

2. Best Interest of the Child vs. Parental Rights

The central issue was whether the trial court erred in applying the “best interest of the child” standard without first determining Mother’s unfitness or inconsistency with her parental rights. The trial court had initially granted Grandmother temporary custody based on the best interest standard but failed to make the necessary findings regarding Mother’s fitness.

The appellate court concluded that the trial court’s temporary custody order was effectively a permanent order due to the extended duration and lack of a specific reconvening time for a permanent custody hearing. As a result, the trial court was required to find Mother unfit or that she had acted inconsistently with her parental rights before applying the best interest standard.

Implications for Future Cases

The ruling in Tillman v. Jenkins underscores several critical principles for custody disputes:

Constitutional Protections for Parents: Courts must respect and uphold the constitutional rights of parents to make decisions regarding their children. Any deviation from this requires clear findings of unfitness or conduct inconsistent with parental rights.

Temporary vs. Permanent Orders: The distinction between temporary and permanent custody orders is crucial. Temporary orders should not extend indefinitely without proper judicial review and must have a clear timeline for resolving custody matters.

Evidentiary Requirements: Nonparents seeking custody must provide substantial evidence to challenge a parent’s fitness. Allegations alone are insufficient; concrete evidence of instability, neglect, or harmful conduct must be presented.

Practical Guidance for Asheville Custody Lawyers

For Asheville custody lawyers, the Tillman v. Jenkins case offers valuable lessons:

Thorough Preparation: Ensure that all allegations against a parent are supported by substantial evidence. This includes documentation of instability, neglect, or other factors that could impact the child’s welfare.

Focus on Constitutional Rights: Always consider the parent’s constitutional rights when arguing custody cases. Be prepared to address and counter any claims of unfitness or inconsistent conduct with substantial evidence.

Clear Legal Strategy: Distinguish clearly between temporary and permanent custody orders and ensure that any temporary arrangements have a clear and reasonable timeline for review.


The Tillman v. Jenkins case highlights the delicate balance courts must maintain between protecting parental rights and ensuring the best interests of the child. For Asheville custody lawyers, understanding these legal standards and their application is essential for effectively navigating custody disputes. By focusing on constitutional protections, thorough preparation, and clear legal strategies, lawyers can better advocate for their clients and ensure that custody determinations are fair and just.

Asheville Divorce Lawyer

Asheville Divorce Lawyer

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