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Black and White, the Kevin Costner Movie 2015: Grandparent Custody

This is a must-see movie for grandparents seeking custody, particularly if the opposing parties are really the paternal grandparents vs. the maternal grandparents.  In a complex fact pattern, everyone gets it right in the end, after a movie filled with struggles.  All looked after the seven-year-old Eloise’s best interests, although it was certainly shaky for a while in the movie.

Kevin Costner plays Elliott Anders, a grandfather, who, with his wife Carol, is raising their granddaughter, cute and vivacious Eloise.   Carol and Elliott’s daughter died of congenital heart disease giving birth to cute, seven-year-old Eloise, who lives with Elliott and Carol.  Then, Carol dies suddenly in a car accident.  Eloise is in the third grade at an advanced school in Los Angeles.  Grandfather Elliott is immediately in the primary parent position with lots of new skill sets to learn, not to mention the grieving for his wife’s sudden death.

The biological father (Reggie Davis) is an African American and a druggie with a prison record.  The maternal grandmother (“WeWe”) has a powerful brother who is a lawyer.  Grandma WeWe wants custody, at least initially.  Later she wants the “druggie” son to have custody and she naively believes he is now okay and drug free.  This is grandparent custody at its best.

This story is a compelling, yet troubling story, between a maternal grandfather and a paternal grandmother, with disturbing overtones of race that will not be discussed in this blog.  A custody battle ensues between two major LA firms, neither of whom are family law attorneys—a mistake for both sides.  Maternal Grandpapa Elliott is a partner in one and paternal uncle a partner in the other.  Both parties should have had skilled custody lawyers, and, in my opinion, these esteemed law firms should have recognized the deficiencies in the respective skill sets and referred the case to seasoned family lawyers.

The judge orders a psychological evaluation, and the psychologist is getting in the head of Eloise.

Custody factors are that Eloise’s home has always been with Elliott and Carol, but is it also obvious that Grandfather Elliott knows very little about Eloise and how to care for her hair, tie a hair ribbon, or even where her school is. Maternal Grandma Carol had been doing all of the hands on parenting. Grandma WeWe had apparently no problem with Grandma Carol, but doesn’t think Eloise will get the love and affection she needs without Carol on the scene.

On the paternal grandmother’s side is the fact that Grandpa Elliott has an apparent drinking problem.  Now, is this grieving over the loss of Carol, or something more?  Whatever the source, it is a problem in this custody case.  Also, Eloise has never had much exposure to her father Reggie. As the court appointed therapist works with Eloise, it seems her wishes regarding her father seem to grow.  So, Eloise’s father, Reggie meets with Grandpa Elliott. Reggie needs money.  Elliott seizes the opportunity for Reggie to meet with Eloise and a meeting is arranged. Reggie is a disappointing no show, but the $25,000 Elliot gives Reggie upon Reggie’s request becomes an obvious court problem; this was a bad idea.  Don’t do this!

The most emotional custody trial happens.  Grandma WeWe is almost locked up for courtroom outbursts.  Elliot makes an unfortunate speech in answer to a question violating the cardinal rule of a witness to 1) listen to the question; 2) understand the question; 3) answer the question; and 4) shut up.

Reggie is mad after the custody trial and goes to Elliot’s home with a knife.  Elliot knocks the knife in the pool, but Elliot gets hurt when Reggie knocks him in the head.  Reggie goes to kidnap Eloise, but doesn’t and comes back to the pool and rescues Elliott from death of drowning in the pool.

At court, Reggie tells the judge he is not seeking custody and WeWe says they are satisfied with Elliot as custodian, but Elliott needs to deal with the drinking.  The judge awards custody to maternal grandpa Elliott, but the families now get along—so Elliot can presumably go to alcohol rehab and WeWe can have time with Eloise.  And they all lived happily ever after.  What a drama with a fairy tale ending, but some good lessons for grandparents and custody.

by Carolyn J. Woodruff, JD, CPA, CVA