Grandparents’ Rights in Custody and Visitation Disputes
When a couple divorces, the effects reverberate far beyond the core family unit. Undoubtedly, children are the most affected by the breakdown of marriages, which is why many states, Florida included, require divorcing parents to take classes on helping their children deal with the changes. Beyond the couple and their children, close family and friends also experience the loss that comes with divorce, especially grandparents. Grandparents often play a large role in a child’s life, and the dynamics of this relationship can be greatly affected by divorce. A couple in Illinois, who helped raise their grandchildren for 12 years, recently lost their bid to gain legal custody following the death of their son, the children’s father. The court ruled the mother, as the natural parent, always has a superior claim over other family members, and noted the mother did not display behavior indicating she abandoned the children or relinquished custody. States are beginning to recognize the contribution grandparents make to the well-being and stability of their grandchildren, and in recent years, have enacted laws to grant them some visitation rights in the event the children’s parents divorce. Florida is included in this group, and beginning in 2015, the state authorized courts to grant visitation in a few limited circumstances.
Florida law grants grandparents the right to petition for visitation in the following limited circumstances:
- both parents are missing, deceased, or in a persistent vegetative state; or
- one parent is missing, deceased, or in a vegetative state, and the other parent is a convicted felon that poses a substantial risk to the child’s health or welfare.
A parent is considered missing when his/her whereabouts are unknown for at least 90 days, and a diligent search was conducted to locate the parent but was unsuccessful.
To determine whether visitation is appropriate, a court looks at the fitness of the parent, the best interests of the child, and if visitation would harm the parent-child relationship. The law limits a grandparent to one visitation petition every two years, unless there is evidence the child is suffering or will suffer significant harm if the parent denies visitation between the child and grandparent.
The law always favors the natural parent over other parties, and custody orders for a non-parent are almost always temporary and based on evidence the child is suffering harm due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment. The hope is to reunite the child with the parents once the harmful element in the household is corrected, and many resources exist to assist parents with this process. Typically, grandparents will not receive permanent custody unless the natural parent loses their parental rights, or formally relinquishes custody to the grandparent.
However, Florida acknowledges that many children are raised by other family members, and has a procedure in place for parents to voluntarily transfer temporary custody to relatives that are better able to care for the child. The purpose is to give custodians with physical custody the legal ability to make decisions about medical care and education of the child. The parents do retain the right to request a modification or termination of the custody order at any time, so this law still favors the rights of the parents over family members with physical custody.
Consult a Florida Family Law Attorney
If you are a grandparent afraid of losing visitation with your grandchildren, it is worth speaking with a lawyer to determine if your situation fits within Florida’s provisions for grandparent visitation. Even if your case does not qualify, an attorney may be able to assist you with negotiating visitation directly with the parent. The Fort Lauderdale law office of Joyce A. Julian, P.A. handles a variety of family law matters and is available to evaluate your case. Contact the office to schedule a free consultation.