July 1, 2009— -- A custody battle over Michael Jackson's three children may be brewing, and even the King of Pop's will may not determine who would come out on top.
On one side is Katherine Jackson, Jackson's 79-year-old mother, who has been a constant for the singer throughout an often turbulent career and personal life. On the other is Debbie Rowe, Jackson's second wife, who has maintained her distance from the family since divorcing Jackson in 1999. But Rowe maintains parental rights over the two older children.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff ruled that, at least for now, Katherine Jackson would get custody of his three children, Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., known as Prince Michael, 12; Paris-Michael Katherine Jackson, 11; and Prince Michael Jackson II, 7. It's a ruling that Rowe and others could challenge in the future.
Jackson's will, which is expected to be filed in a California court this week, could reveal his last wishes for his children. But those wishes would not be legally binding and only "a factor" in a custody hearing, California attorney Gloria Allred told "Good Morning America" today.
Jackson died last Thursday after suffering apparent cardiac arrest at his rented Los Angeles home.
Despite reports that Rowe has not been close to the family for more than a decade and may not be biological mother of any of the children, she would still have "an advantage" should she seek custody, Allred said. The two older children, Michael Joseph Jackson Jr. and Paris-Michael Katherine Jackson, were born while Rowe was married to Jackson, making her their legal mother.
She reportedly signed away her parental rights to the children after the divorce, but in 2006 an appeals court reestablished her parental status.
"Katherine would have to show it would be detrimental [to the kids for Rowe to have custody]. That's a very heavy burden," Allred said.
At 30 years Rowe's senior, Katherine Jackson "has always had the quiet hand," the Rev. Al Sharpton told "Good Morning America" Tuesday.
Sharpton, who has known the family for more than three decades and has spent time with the family since Michael Jackson's death last week, described Jackson's mother as a "rock."
"These kids love their grandmother. She's been in their lives," California divorce attorney Stacy Phillips said. "The only thing that is a problem for Katherine is she's not a spring chicken."
In a statement released Tuesday, Rowe's attorney said she may appear in court.
"Debbie remains grief stricken. Her thoughts are with the children and all the Jackson family," the statement read. "To the extent she must respond to court proceedings that were started by others, she will of course do so at the appropriate time."
Who Else Wants Custody of Michael Jackson's Kids?
In a press conference in Los Angeles Monday, Jackson's father, Joe Jackson, said custody of his grandchildren should go to the Jacksons, not Rowe or Grace Rwaramba, Jackson's former longtime nanny.
"This is where they belong ... we love those kids ... we're going to take care of them," he said.
Katherine Jackson's custody petition cited the reason she should become the guardian: "Minor children are currently residing with paternal grandmother. They have a long established relationship with paternal grandmother and are comfortable in her care."
The petition also stated that the children have "no relationship with their biological mother." And that it is "not known" whether the mother agrees that Katherine Jackson should be guardian. As for the mother of Prince Michael II, known as Blanket, a box is checked for "none."
Asked about Rowe, Joe Jackson said, "Debbie Rowe has nothing to do with what we're doing."
Rwaramba, 42, worked for Jackson for nearly two decades, starting as an office assistant who handled insurance for his employees.
Over time, observers said Rwaramba had taken an increasingly central role in the lives of Jackson and his children. Jackson and Rwaramba were even rumored to be considering marriage in 2006
Joe Jackson said Rwaramba, who Michael Jackson fired in December, was still "a good friend of the family and the kids." He said the family is looking into what role she can have in the kids' lives.
Beckloff's ruling also named Katherine Jackson special administrator of Jackson's property, pending a hearing July 6.
The judge's ruling did not cover Jackson's financial assets, which includes his stake in the Sony-ATV Music publishing catalog. The catalog contains legendary music from the Beatles and Bob Dylan, as well as new acts such as the Jonas Brothers. Its worth has been estimated at as much as $2 billion.
A hearing to consider those requests has been scheduled for Monday.
A source confirmed that Jackson drafted a will in 2002 and the document will filed in court as early as today. Longtime Jackson attorney John Branca and John McLain, a friend and music executive, are the named executors.
Jackson, according to the source, bequeathed everything he owned to his mother, three children and charitable organizations.