After Tony Abdo, the mechanic, takes Jerry’s car out into the nice no-pothole, no-traffic countryside, he tells Jerry over the phone that “listen, that registration may have your name on it, Jerry. But this engine’s running on my sweat and my blood.” Does Tony actually have any rights to the car?
(*Editor’s Note: We are going to analyze this question through the prism of Family Law and the Parental Rights of non-biological parents. These are obviously not applicable to a mechanic and a car. This is purely just for fun.)
The exact parameters of Family Law legal issues are typically hard to pin down, as there is often no national standard and each state differs from another in how they interpret and define legal questions. The question of parenthood, and more specifically does a non-biological parent have certain parental rights when the minor’s biological parent’s are still living, is one that each state has had to address primarily for itself. But while each state may differ in its answer, there is a general approach that, under certain limited circumstances, a non-biological parent can have visitation or even custody rights over a minor child.
The burden of proof on the non-biological parent is high though. Due process affords biological parents significant rights to control the upbringing of their children, and not just anyone can submit a petition to the court for parental rights. A court can not just use a “best interest of the child” standard to rule that a person who is not a biological parent has the right to custody or visitation of the child. While granting a grandparent or some other person custody and/or visitation might objectively be in the “best interest of the child,” the fundamental right for parents to control the upbringing of their child is so significant that court can not just utilize such a free standing principle to grant rights to anyone.
With that said, there is still a way to override that right, but it is a high burden. A petitioner would have to show that a biological parent is considerably unfit, or makes decisions that cause very clear and objective harm to a child. Additionally, the petitioner would have to have some connection to the child as well, be some kind of caregiver, and not just be a random third-party that is concerned for the child’s well being.
Let’s apply this to Jerry’s Saab. Jerry would be considered the “biological parent” and Tony is the “non-biological” parent seeking custody over the car. And Tony certainly fulfills the role of a car care-giver, as he lovingly tunes up the car whenever Jerry needs, and makes detailed, accurate notes about how Jerry could better treat the car.
Ultimately though, it is still Jerry’s car, and the burden is very high to prove that Jerry is unfit to serve as the lawful driver of the car. The decisions he makes regarding car maintenance are given considerable deference and weight by the law. It is not enough for Tony to say that he could objectively take better care of the car. He has to show that Jerry’s choices are actually harmful to the Saab. While Tony can argue all he wants that Jerry barely knows his car, that isn’t going to be enough. Not understanding your car does not make you unfit to be it’s registered owner.