The Guardianship of Bruce Wayne

The story of Bruce Wayne’s childhood has been retold many times.  Originally, Bruce Wayne was raised by his uncle, Phillip Wayne, after the death of his parents, Thomas and Martha Wayne.  Later this was changed so that Bruce was raised by the family butler, Alfred Pennyworth.  But according to unofficial family trees, there may have been several other living relatives at the time of Thomas and Martha’s death.  For example, in Batman #120 we encounter Silas Wayne, Bruce’s great-uncle.  All of this leads to this question from Frank, who asks:

Batman is a child when the Wayne parents are killed. In the Nolan movies, Alfred, a hired butler, seems to act as a legal guardian via a will. But would a living relative of Thomas and Martha Wayne have any claim to parental rights or even visitation?

Certainly parents can appoint a guardian in their wills.  Generally, if one parent survives the other then generally guardianship will pass to the surviving parent, even if the parents are divorced and the deceased parent was awarded custody.  In this case, however, both parents were deceased, and they apparently both wanted Alfred to be Bruce’s guardian.  But could a court have disregarded Alfred’s appointment?  As we usually do when discussing Batman, we’ll use New York law.

“[T]he Court cannot disregard the testamentary provisions for guardianship, unless the welfare of the children demands it.”  In re Lewis’ Will, 74 N.Y.S.2d 865, 867 (Sur. Ct. 1947).  “The Legislature has granted to Surrogates a wide discretion, and they are not required to appoint the person nominated by the infant or the father or mother. In all cases involving the appointment of a guardian for an infant the paramount question is whether the interest of the infant will be promoted by the appointment to be made.”  Will of Sapanara, 392 N.Y.S.2d 825, 827 (Sur. Ct. 1977).

In hindsight Alfred was an excellent guardian.  Even at the time of the Waynes’ death he probably seemed like a good choice.  Some of the factors considered in the Sapanara case include having an interest and concern for the child’s well-being, caring for the child, offering love and affection, and providing a comfortable and safe home.  Alfred had all of these qualities.  It’s doubtful that any of Bruce’s other relatives would have been such a superior guardian that a court would have been willing to disturb the parents’ choice.

On the other hand, the court could require that the surviving relatives be offered visitation.  For example, in the Lewis case the court ordered that

A wholesome relation should exist between the petitioner and respondent, particularly in so far as the infants are concerned. Reasonable opportunity for visitation of the infants by the respondent and Marian Glidden should be afforded, including occasional visitations overnight by the children to the respondent’s home.

Thus a court could require that Bruce’s relatives be allowed to visit him and even for Bruce to occasionally stay with his relatives.  And until he reached majority, Bruce would technically remain a ward of the court, so if Alfred ceased to be an appropriate guardian, then the court could select a new one, likely a relative.

(It’s worth noting that under this standard Bruce Wayne would be a terrible choice of guardian for Dick Grayson.  Bruce can offer a lot, but his use of Robin as a sidekick suggests that he doesn’t have much concern for his well-being.)