- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 27, 2009

While the legal details have yet to be sorted out in the wake of Michael Jackson’s sudden death, a custody battle could be brewing over his three children.

Media reports have said that the children now are being cared for by a nanny along with Mr. Jackson’s mother Katherine, who some, including the Jackson family attorney, have suggested is likely to be the person who will ultimately gain custody of her grandchildren.

But an attorney for the pop star’s former wife, Debbie Rowe, told People magazine Friday that her client was the legal parent to the two oldest siblings she gave birth to for Mr. Jackson through artificial insemination - a boy Prince Michael Jackson, 12, and his sister, Paris, 11- and thus has the right to custody if she chooses. The attorney described Miss Rowe as “inconsolable” over Mr. Jackson’s death.

As for what might happen to Mr. Jackson’s third and youngest child, Prince Michael II but known publicly as Blanket, 7, is not known. The child was reportedly conceived through a surrogate mother whose identity has never been made public.

Famed Miami attorney Roy Black said that however custody shakes out, expect the legal process over Mr. Jackson’s affairs to be exhaustive.

“I think it’s fair to say a large number of lawyers will be making huge fees over the next several years trying to untangle the financial and emotional mess left by his death,” he said.

“Because his assets are unusual,” with a music catalog and royalties, rights to his image as well as publicized concerns of massive debts, “it’s going to be much more difficult for lawyers to straighten out. I expect this will be a long and complicated legal road.”

A family court judge will likely sort out the issues for the children. While Miss Rowe in 1999 sought to give up her parental rights, a judge in the case refused to grant the request, awarding Mr. Jackson physical custody but retaining Miss Rowe’s relationship with her son and daughter.

“They’re his children,” she repeatedly asserted in court testimony. When asked whether she “had ever considered the possibility if Michael should die, what would happen to the children,” Miss Rowe responded: “I’m sure he has a wonderful person in mind to take care of them.” Miss Rowe told the court that she loved them, but “they’re not my kids.”

Houston celebrity family law attorney Tony R. Bertolino said most likely the judge at the time used a best interests of the children rationale in refusing to allow Miss Rowe to terminate her parental relationship. How her previous testimony would influence a future custody case is not clear.

The children have a godfather - onetime British child star Mark Lester, who starred in the Academy-Award winning film of the musical “Oliver.” He told MSNBC that Mr. Jackson was a tremendous dad who would do anything for his children.

“They’re the most fabulous kids. … I’m here for them 24/7, so whatever they need, they’ve got from me,” Mr. Lester said. “Michael was one of the best. … He made me ashamed, he was such a good father.”

Even with the broad support for the children’s well-being, Mr. Bertolino said he expects the Jackson child custody case to get nasty, given Mr. Jackson’s fractious family history and complex relationships with his parents, including accusing his father, Joe Jackson, of child abuse during his youth. Publicly his family has circled the wagons for the star in times of crises, standing by his side during his highly publicized child molestation case, in which he was found not guilty.

With a fortune at stake, however, things could change.

“What is pretty sad with this, is a lot of friends and family and folks that have been around Michael have always been there for a handout, looking for an opportunity to enter into contract,” he said. “There was always something they wanted from him. It’s unfortunate through his death - I think that mentality may enter with his own children.”

Appointed guardians receive a salary, he noted, and with Mr. Jackson’s wealth, such a payout to the custodian of the children could be substantial.

“You never know what someone’s ultimate intent is,” Mr. Bertolino said. “His entire life he’s been surrounded by those kinds of people. Even with his death, that is very likely those same kinds of people will pop up from under their rocks and assert their rights in hopes of banking.”

Mr. Black said the contents of a will could spell out Mr. Jackson’s intentions for his children. Thus far, it is not known whether Mr. Jackson had a will.

“There could be a big will contest,” he said. “When that happens, usually lawyers end up with more money than the heirs. These kind of things can be pretty vicious … unless the family will decide to settle it.

“I assume that he left his estate to his children,” Mr. Black said. “But you never know with Michael Jackson.”

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