When a marriage ends, that event affects more than the couple involved: friendships may be strained, ties with in-laws become attenuated, and matters become even more difficult if the couple has children. The dissolution of a marriage can mean that grandparents who previously enjoyed an active role in their grandchildren’s lives will no longer see them as regularly. However, most states recognize that grandparents have a legal right to see their grandchildren if a divorce or separation occurs, although the extent of those rights varies widely from state to state. Most states use a “best interests of the child” analysis to determine if grandparents have a right to visitation. Some states, including California and Iowa, require a preexisting or substantial relationship between the grandparents and grandchildren. In other states, like Connecticut, any person suing for visitation rights must have previously filled a parental role in relation to the child.
The status of grandparent visitation was affected by a 2000 US Supreme Court case, Troxel v. Granville, which dealt with a Washington State statute that allowed any person to request visitation at any time. The Troxels’ son had passed away and the Troxels wanted to visit their grandchildren. Their daughter-in-law did not object to the idea of visitation but wanted to limit the amount of visitation. The Court described the Washington statute as “breathtakingly broad” and held that parents have the right to make decisions about their children’s custody and care, including decisions related to visitation. In the wake of Troxel, states have been cautious about extending additional rights to grandparents. Instead, most states grant parents deference to make decisions about the scope and frequency of grandparent visitation. Grandparents who want to establish formal visitation rights would do well to examine the current law in the state in which their grandchildren reside.
Aside from any legal barriers to visitation, grandparents may want to think twice about how and when to seek visitation. While many states allow grandparents to sue for visitation, any type of litigation can be expensive and time-consuming. A lawsuit can also further strain already-strained relationships and can cause pain and anxiety to the beloved grandchildren at the heart of the suit. Grandparents who want a closer relationship with their grandchildren may want to consider the costs of litigation and the effectiveness of alternatives like mediation or informal resolutions. With a little planning and forethought, love can still conquer all.