A child can benefit from a loving grandparent relationship, especially if there is discord or dysfunction at home or between the parents. A grandparent may provide a loving bond, a safety net, an advocate, a tie to family tradition and extended family, wisdom, guidance and fun companionship.
When the child’s parents divorce or separate, are estranged or in conflict, or struggle with addiction, mental health, incarceration, domestic violence, physical illness or other challenges, a strong relationship with a grandparent can provide a life line for the grandchild.
Narrow Florida grandparent rights
In Florida, if a parent objects to his or her child having contact with a grandparent — often the parent of the child’s other parent — that grandparent facing potential estrangement from the grandchild has few legal rights in the Sunshine State.
According to The Villages Daily Sun, Florida has an estimated 4.5 million grandparents, possibly the highest of any state. Yet, because of U.S. Supreme Court holdings that parents have constitutional rights to control and care for their children based in privacy rights as well as a broad parental right to privacy in the Florida Constitution, grandparents have few options to obtain visitation rights.
Florida’s restrictive grandparent visitation laws
This is reflected in the state’s grandparent visitation statute that took effect July 1, 2015. A grandparent (including a great-grandparent) may file a petition for visitation with a minor grandchild that the court might grant if either of two narrow situations exit:
- Both parents are “deceased, missing, or in a persistent vegetative state.”
- One parent is deceased, missing or in a persistent vegetative state and the other has a felony or other violent criminal conviction that could indicate the parent’s behavior could pose a “substantial threat of harm to the minor child’s health or welfare.”
The court holds a preliminary hearing to decide if the grandparent has shown “parental unfitness or significant harm to the child.” If not, the court dismisses the petition and may order the grandparent to pay the legal fees of an opposing parent. If the petition goes forward, the judge can appoint a guardian ad litem for the child and must order mediation of the dispute, if mediation services are locally available.
If mediation is not successful, the judge will hold a final hearing. The court must find by clear and convincing evidence (a high legal standard) either that there is parental unfitness or a significant risk of harm to the child, that grandparent visitation would be in the child’s best interest and that the visitation would not “materially harm the parent-child relationship.” (The law lists specific factors for the judge to consider in this determination.)
To determine the child’s best interests, the court must look at the “totality of the circumstances affecting the mental and emotional well-being of the minor child,” including consideration of a long list of factors and anything else the court thinks is necessary to consider.
A grandparent can only file a visitation petition every two years unless the child is or might suffer “significant and demonstrable mental or emotional harm” from a parent keeping the child and grandparent apart.
Court orders from other states
It can be particularly complex when a grandparent asks a Florida court to enforce an order for grandparent visitation issued by a court of another state. In those cases, Florida judges must consider complicated legal issues related to the balance between the legal rights of Florida parents and the duties of Florida courts to give full faith and credit to the orders of out-of-state courts.
In any of these situations, Florida grandparents or parents facing these issues should seek the advice of an experienced family lawyer.