[Source: Bay Area News Group]
In the fictional world of the HBO series, Streep’s Mary Louise poses a credible threat to win custody of her grandsons. California law sees things differently, experts say
It looks like “Big Little Lies” will wind up its highly anticipated but much-debated second season Sunday night with a dramatic courtroom showdown between two of its most acclaimed stars: Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman.
Streep’s aggrieved, bereaved grandmother Mary Louise is suing her daughter-in-law Celeste, played by Kidman, for custody of her 8-year-old twin grandsons, following the mysterious fall that killed her son Perry at the end of Season 1.
But with Kelley’s legal expertise, one would think he could create a more plausible situation around which to build a dramatic storyline.Critics say it’s not surprising that the HBO series would rely on legal drama to reveal secrets and provide finale fireworks. After all, the showrunner and writer is David E. Kelley, a former attorney who has been writing about lawyers for decades with “L.A. Law,” “Ally McBeal,” and “Boston Legal.”
In the fictional world of “Big Little Lies,” Mary Louise is shown to pose a credible threat to Celeste’s ability to retain custody of her children.
In real life, California courts make it difficult to take children away from their biological parents and “very tough,” for non-parents, even grandparents, to get custody, stated Peter M. Walzer – one of the best family law attorneys in the Los Angeles area- in an email to this news organization.
Another top family law attorney Laura Wasser added in an interview with New York magazine that her colleagues would see Mary Louise’s case as a loser.
“The chances of a family law attorney taking that case and actually prevailing are pretty low,” said Wasser, who also is based in Los Angeles and has represented Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Garner in high-profile divorce cases. “Grandparents do not have very many rights in the state of California. Biological parents have far more rights.”
It is Mary Louise’s position that Celeste is “unwell.” Mary Louise brings up the fact that Celeste has driven under the influence of Ambien, engaged in some one-night stands with nameless strangers and slapped her — after she needled and insulted her daughter-in-law.
Also concerning, Celeste lost her cool when one of her sons talked back and shoved him and is hiding the fact that Perry died after one of her Monterey 5 friends pushed him down the stairs.
At one point, Celeste’s attorney implies she could lose custody to her mother-in-law and says she would be lucky to get even joint custody. But again, in the real world, a grandparent like Mary Louise might have a shot at getting visitation, said Walzer, who is president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. But she would have to overcome major legal hurdles to get custody.
Under California law, the court must find that allowing a parent to retain custody would “be detrimental” to the child, while letting a non-parent become the caregiver is in the “best interest of the child,” Walzer said.
Wasser added that a parent is usually considered “unfit” if she is incarcerated, institutionalized, or proven to be abusing the children physically or sexually.
“Big Little Lies” portrays Celeste as being a constant and loving, though flawed, presence in her sons’ lives. Since Perry’s death, she has been depressed and admits on the stand that she has engaged in “self-destructive” behavior as she sorts out her conflicted feelings about him. She loved Perry passionately but also feared him because he was violent and psychologically abusive.
“I will not say I’m healed but I’m in the process of healing,” Celeste says during cross-examination. “I’ve always been a good mother. I’ve always put my children’s interests first, and I’ve always kept them safe, even when there was a monster in the house.”
Mary Louise’s attorney engages in some “slut-shaming” by getting Celeste to admit she liked rough sex with her husband and presses her on why she stayed in an abusive marriage. He also questions her about her one-night stands.
The judge expresses sympathy for Celeste feeling trapped in her marriage, saying “I understand why women stay with her abusers.” But the judge suggests she has reservations about other issues.
Top divorce attorney Peter M. Walzer added that lifestyle choices can come under scrutiny in custody cases. He added, “The weight they are given depends on the judge hearing the case.”
Mary Louise’s best shot at proving Celeste is unfit is by alleging domestic violence, Walzer said.
“The fact that Celeste slapped Mary Louise and pushed one of the twins is domestic violence which would likely be more of a factor than the lifestyle choices,” Walzer said. Under California law, it is considered “detrimental” to a child’s best interest to be placed in the home of someone who has perpetuated domestic violence.
But Celeste appears to alleviate the judge’s concerns by saying she will continue therapy and seek help for her substance abuse problems. Viewers can also think that Celeste, who was never known to be violent around her sons, could show that they are safe with her by enrolling in parenting classes, where she would learn to manage her anger and use effective, appropriate discipline.
Wasser said California law tries to uphold children’s bonds with their biological parents, while Walzer said the “Big Little Lies” custody drama sounds only “maybe plausible” and “not very likely.”
He said, “I would say that it is very tough for a grandparent to gain custody of their grandchild.”