Grandparents and their grandchildren can have relationships of great joy and importance for both the grandparents and the child. But in the event of a parent’s death, divorce or estrangement, families can be torn apart and relationships altered or severed. The child’s parent or guardian may obstruct any further contact with grandparents, who may take legal steps to maintain contact with the children they love. As the divorce rates rose in the 1970s, state legislatures began enacting “grandparent visitation” statutes to protect the visitation rights of grandparents and other caretakers. Now all 50 states have a grandparent visitation rights law of some type. These statutes allow grandparents to request the legal right from the court to maintain their relationships with their children’s children.
Visitation statutes, however, do not give absolute grandparent visitation rights, and the laws vary widely from state to state on critical details such as who may petition for visitation rights, under what circumstances a grandparent may file such a petition, and on what legal grounds the petition will be granted. Most importantly, a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling presents the priority of the wishes of the parents in resolving visitation disputes, and this ruling is changing state courts’ interpretation of visitation statutes. Each state differs on the extent to which parents have a right to control how they raise their children. Some states have viewed visitation by grandparents as only a small infringement on the right of a parent to raise a child. These states focus on what is in the “best interest of the child” in making decisions about whether or not to allow grandparents to visit. In these states, courts may award grandparents visitation rights even if the parents object.
Other states are more protective of a parent’s right to decide what is best for the child. They have “restrictive” visitation statutes, meaning that generally only grandparents’ visitation rights are respected, not other caretakers, and these rights may be pursued only if the child’s parents are divorcing, one or both parents have died, or the child was born out of wedlock. In other words, in these states, the parents in intact families have the final word on whether or not grandparent’s visitation rights are permitted.
Every grandparents’ visitation rights case is decided on its own facts and merits. However, grandparents can take steps to improve their chances of gaining visitation rights. Courts often consider the previous relationship between the grandparent and grandchild, and they look favorably on the evidence of a consistent and caring relationship. If a grandparent didn’t make an effort before the change in custody, visitation rights will be more difficult to obtain. If the child’s parent rejects the grandparent’s efforts to visit, the grandparent should keep a record of his or her attempted contacts and continue to make a reasonable effort to preserve the relationship with the grandchild, such as by sending gifts and cards. When it comes time to meet with an attorney, grandparents should have documentary evidence and names of witnesses to support their claim that visitation is in the best interest of the child.
Avoiding a court battle is ultimately the best way to obtain grandparent visitation rights. This can be done through a process called professional mediation. In mediation, the disputing parties engage the services of a neutral third party to help them come to a legally binding agreement that everyone involved can live with. The disputing parties can control the process and they have a chance to explain their perspectives and feelings.
Grandparent visitation rights are an important part of a child’s life. They benefit the grandparents and the children alike. The special bond between the two should not be denied under ordinary circumstances. If you are having trouble obtaining grandparent visitation rights, an experienced attorney can help you through the process.