The transition from parent to grandparent is extremely exciting, especially for those who have been anxiously watching and waiting for their own children to have children. However, not all families offer a normal, nuclear dynamic. From divorce, abuse, or premature death to normal interfamilial arguments, plenty of unfortunate events can stand in the way of a happy, healthy relationship between family members.
Even in instances of trouble between grandparents and their children, wanting contact with grandchildren is completely natural. As a grandparent, you do have the right to contact and interact with grandchildren. However, the extent of these rights can vary from state to state, so be sure you understand the applicable policies in your location before taking legal action.
The Division Between Grandchild and Grandparent
As culture changes, so do the relationships within families. With many children moving far away after high school or college and starting families across the country, an increasing number of grandparents see far less of their grandchildren than in previous generations.
In addition, cutting off grandparents is becoming a common punishment of sorts; when a grandparent provides unwanted advice, says the wrong thing, or has a differing opinion, a severing of exposure is now becoming increasingly normal. In some cases, these divisions are warranted, and some grandparents do behave inappropriately, but in others, generational divides and interpersonal clashes are the sole drivers behind a full cessation of contact.
Many grandparents feel as if they have no choice but to accept their children’s wishes, but there may be legal alternatives available. In most states, grandparents have the ability to utilize the law to maintain a relationship with their grandchildren, regardless of the opinion of the parent.
The Basics of Grandparent Rights
In general, grandparent rights refer to a grandparent’s ability to seek custody or visitation under particular legal circumstances.
There are no federal protections for grandparents. Rights for grandparents are not included in the Constitution, and a right to visitation may vary greatly from one state to another. However, several pieces of legislation do play a role at a federal level. The Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act of 1980, for example, ruled that states must abide by other states’ custody rulings. In 1998, courts ruled on a separate issue decreeing that states must honor other states’ grandparent visitation orders.
Grandparents seeking a ruling under the law should also be aware of potential federal interference. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that Troxel v. Granville violated the due process rights of parents, nullifying the policies in Washington.
Policies State by State
With no federal rulings in place, state policies are the most important for grandparents seeking custody or visitation to understand.
Alabama: Grandparents can sue for visitation in cases of death, divorce, or legal separation. Grandparents must be able to prove a “significant and viable relationship.”
Alaska: In Alaska, grandparents can request to join an existing custody case or to sue individually for visitation, and must include legal action for divorce, legal separation, or child placement action. Grandparents must prove that contact is in the child’s best interest.
Arizona: Intact families are exempt from visitation suits; visitation may be awarded if the parents’ marriage has been dissolved for at least three months, or a birth occurred out of wedlock.
Arkansas: Custody can be granted depending on the interests of the child and his or her welfare. Grandparents must carry the burden of proof.CaliforniaIntact families are generally exempt unless parents are physically living separately, one parent has disappeared, or the child is not living with his parents.
Colorado: Intact families are exempt, unless a third party takes custody or the child’s parents’ marriage has been dissolved.ConnecticutAny grandparent petitioning for visitation must have previously filled a parental role and must be able to prove that denying access would cause “real and significant” harm.
Delaware: Mediation is required for visitation. Grandparents must have a “substantial and positive prior relationship” and must be able to prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest.
Florida: Visitation is extremely limited in Florida and requires a child’s parent to be missing, dead, or in a persistent vegetative state. An additional clause makes an exception in cases of a felony.
Georgia: Grandparents cannot sue in the case of an intact family, and, in all cases, must demonstrate that lack of contact would be harmful.
Hawaii: Hawaii does not permit grandparents to sue under state law. However, this policy was ruled unconstitutional in 2007, but no other rulings have yet been submitted.
Idaho: The only criteria for visitation is the proper demonstration that contact is in the best interest of the child.
Illinois: Visitation is very restricted in Illinois. Children must be at least a year old and the denial of visitation must be proven to be unreasonable, although the law offers no definition for what qualifies as unreasonable.
Indiana: Visitation is an option if the child’s parents have broken up, have passed away, or if the child was born out of wedlock.
Iowa: The child’s parent who is related to the grandparent must be deceased. Further, grandparents must demonstrate an existing relationship, that visitation is in the best interest of the child, and that the existing parent is not fit to make a decision regarding visitation.
Kansas: Grandparents must have a proven history of a prior relationship and must be able to demonstrate that visitation is in the best interest of the child.
Kentucky: Kentucky has among the loosest laws and allows for legal action as long as it can be proved that visitation is in the best interest of the child.
Louisiana: Custody or visitation may be granted if a child’s parents pass away or are ruled to be legally incompetent. Grandparents may also seek rights if a parent is found to have a substance use disorder.
Maine: Maine has a Grandparent Visitation Act that requires an existing relationship or suitable attempt at such a relationship. Other factors, like the age of the child, age of the grandparent, and current living arrangements, may play a role.
Maryland: Maryland’s laws are vague, but grant “reasonable visitation” to grandparents who can demonstrate parental neglect or another exceptional instance that necessitates visitation.
Massachusetts: Intact families are exempt; parents must be divorced, legally separated, or deceased, or the child was born out of wedlock.
Michigan: “Grandparenting time” can be awarded for parents who are divorced, deceased, separated, or attempting to annul their marriage. Grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest.
Minnesota: In Minnesota, grandparents can file for custody if the parents are deceased and can request visitation in cases of divorce, or if the child lived with the grandparents for at least a year or more. Grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest.
Mississippi: Grandparents can only seek access if they are the parents of a non-custodial parent or a parent who has had their own rights revoked, or if the parents are deceased. A viable relationship must be in place.
Missouri: No rights exist in intact families. A child’s parents must be divorced or deceased, and the child must have resided with his grandparents for at least six months out of the preceding two years.
Montana: Visitation can be granted in any family structure but grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest.
Nebraska: No rights exist in intact families, and a child’s parents must be divorced or deceased, or the child was born out of wedlock. Grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest.
Nevada: Visitation can be granted if the child’s parents are divorced, separated, deceased, or had parental rights terminated.
New Hampshire: Visitation can be granted if the child’s parents are divorced, separated, deceased, or had parental rights terminated, or if the child was born out of wedlock.
New Jersey: Grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest.New MexicoVisitation can be granted if the child’s parents are divorced, separated, or deceased, or if the child lived with his grandparents for more than six months and is over six years of age.
New York: New York does not offer much specific guidance, but may award visitation if a case’s circumstances warrant it.
North Carolina: North Carolina does not offer much specific guidance, but may award visitation or custody if a case’s circumstances warrant it. Adoption cases must include a prior meaningful relationship.
North Dakota: Grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest, a factor that includes the duration of the relationship.OhioVisitation can be granted if the child’s parents are divorced, separated, deceased, or were never together. Grandparents must have demonstrated a previous interest in the child’s overall welfare.
Oklahoma: Grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest. An exception may be considered for children born out of wedlock.
Oregon: Visitation may be granted under any family structure depending on the relationship between both parent and child and grandchild and grandparent.
Pennsylvania: Visitation requires parents to be deceased, divorced, or separated, and the child must have resided with his grandparents for more than a year.
Rhode Island: Rhode Island doesn’t make note of specific policies, but grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest.
South Carolina: Visitation can be granted if the child’s parents are divorced, separated, or deceased. Prior relationships are considered.
South Dakota: Visitation can be granted if the child’s parents are divorced, separated, or deceased, but no statutory factors exist.
Tennessee: Tennessee has no current ruling, as a previous version was ruled unconstitutional.
Texas: Criteria for visitation include a parent’s death, divorce, incarceration, or termination of parental rights. Abuse and neglect cases can also influence rulings.
Utah: Visitation can be granted if the child’s parents are divorced, separated, or deceased. Prior relationships are considered.
Vermont: Criteria for visitation include a parent’s death, incompetence, or abandonment.
Virginia: A parent’s marriage must be dissolved before grandparents can seek visitation.
Washington: Washington has no current ruling, as a previous version was ruled unconstitutional.
West Virginia: Grandparents can only seek visitation if a parent is deceased, the child previously lived with his grandparents, and if grandparents have tried and failed to seek visitation outside of the legal system.
Wisconsin: Visitation may be granted if parents are deceased and the child and grandparent have a preexisting relationship.
Wyoming: Grandparents must prove that visitation is in the child’s best interest. Other criteria include impairment of parental rights.
Should You Fight for Your Rights?
Whether or not you should fight for your rights is a very individual issue and will depend both on state law as well as the unique situation at hand. If, for example, your child determined your presence to be unhealthy and overbearing and your grandchild leads an otherwise normal life with two stable, mature parents, you likely do not have much of a case. If your child passed away and your late child’s spouse is refusing you access, however, you may have a sound legal argument.
Always speak to a lawyer before filing paperwork or attempting to go through the courts to secure visitation. Only a trained legal professional can help you navigate the ins and outs of your situation, especially in states where laws are unusually restrictive.