LOS ANGELES — Given the secrecy surrounding Michael Jackson's children throughout his life, it's no surprise that there are lingering questions about who will care for them after his death. What is almost certain is this: Their fate will be decided in a courtroom, with several people possibly vying for custody.
Experts say the person who has the strongest legal claim to Jackson's two oldest children is their mother, Deborah Rowe. As for the youngest child, Jackson's wishes will be more influential.
It remains unclear who Jackson designated as potential guardians for his children. Those details — likely contained in the 50-year-old singer's will — have not been released.
Rowe's attorney, Marta Almli, wrote in a statement Saturday that "Ms. Rowe's only thoughts at this time have been regarding the devastating loss Michael's family has suffered. Ms. Rowe requests that Michael's family, and particularly the children, be spared such harmful, sensationalist speculation and that they be able to say goodbye to their loved one in peace."
Jackson never told his family who he had in place to handle his business affairs, a person close to the family told The Associated Press on Friday. The person, who requested anonymity because of the delicate nature of the situation, said they were told by the singer's phalanx of advisers that he likely had a will, but it may be many years old.
The person also said that the children are still in the care of the extended Jackson family for the moment.
Jackson left behind three children: Michael Joseph Jackson Jr., known as Prince Michael, 12; Paris Michael Katherine Jackson, 11; and Prince Michael II, 7. The elder children were born to Rowe, while the youngest is his biological son, born to a surrogate mother.
Prince Michael II's mother has never been identified, and while she may surface, it is likely that she signed away her rights, said Stacy Phillips, a Los Angeles divorce attorney who has represented numerous high-profile clients.
Jackson was by several accounts an attentive and loving father.
"He was a great father," said Raymone Bain, Jackson's former publicist and general manager. "Those kids knew three and four languages. Even the little one. They were well mannered and sweet. I can't imagine these children without him."
He was extremely protective of his children, who weren't often seen in public, and were photographed wearing veils, masks or other items covering their face when they were.
Rowe, a former nurse for Jackson's dermatologist, married Jackson in 1996 but filed for divorce in 1999. She later gave up her custody rights to the children, but petitioned to have those rights restored in 2003 after Jackson was arrested on child molestation charges, and an appeals court sided with her.
Jackson and Rowe apparently agreed in 2006 regarding her rights, but the terms have never been disclosed. The couple's divorce case that was heard in Los Angeles Superior Court remains closed.
Phillips said if her parental rights remain intact, she's presumed to be first in line to receive custody of her two children. "That could still be contested," she added.
Rowe would have to undergo an evaluation by the court to determine if she's the best person to care for Jackson's children. So, too, would anyone else who applies to become the children's guardianship — some of whom may have Jackson's blessing.
"If he did indicate a preference, that will be given great weight, but that will not be determinative," said Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred. "Children are not property, they cannot be willed to another person."
Allred agreed that Rowe has better legal standing than others who apply for custody of Jackson's eldest children. "She's definitely going to have an advantage."
But a court will also take into account with whom the children have a relationship bond, and that may not work in Rowe's favor. She wrote in a 2001 petition to sever her parental rights that she thought Jackson was doing a good parenting job.
"Michael has been a wonderful father to the children, and I do not wish to share any parenting responsibilities with Michael because he is doing so well without me," Rowe wrote. She also indicated in court filings during the 2006 custody struggle that had not seen the children since 2005, shortly after his trial ended in acquittal on all charges and Jackson moved the children overseas.
It is unclear how often Rowe has seen the children since Jackson returned to the Los Angeles area in recent months to prepare for a 50-show concert engagement in London. It is also unclear what role the children's godfather, British child actor Mark Lester, may play in the proceedings.
Whoever wins custody of Jackson's children won't automatically gain control of their inheritance, Phillips said.
"For many people, the person or persons who are taking care of their kids are not necessarily taking care of their money," Phillips said. "There's a benefit to that — a sort of a check-and-balance."
Rowe, or whoever is designated the children's guardian, will receive payments based on Jackson's estate, Phillips said.
More clarity about the fate of Jackson's children will likely come once court proceedings start.
Phillips said the custody issue will now be handled by a probate court. If it is filed at Los Angeles' main downtown courthouse, Phillips said it will be handled by judges with significant family law experience.
Phillips said the looming custody fight could be unlike any other.
"In all the cases I've read all over the country," she said, "I've never seen a fact pattern like this."