Do Grandparents Have the Rights They Should?

The experts report on the state of grandparent rights in the U.S. today

By John Bringardner

See our state-by-state guide to grandparents' rights.

Coming Soon: As a service to our readers, is establishing the American Grandparents AssociationTM with the goal of becoming a key resource for grandparents who are physically removed from their grandchildren and would like to find a way to visit them.

Richard Kent, a family lawyer at Fairfield, Conn.-based Meyers Breiner & Kent, frequently goes to courtroom battle for grandparents seeking visitation with, or custody of, grandchildren.

"The state of grandparents' rights is terrible," says Kent. Under the current laws, if a couple's adult daughter dies, he says, those grandparents could be denied visitation with their grandchild by the child's father.

Even if they had what most people would consider a classic grandparent-grandchild relationship and, let's say, saw their grandchild every Sunday afternoon. But in the eyes of Connecticut law, says Kent, unless grandparents have functioned as de facto parents — meaning they lived with their grandchildren or took care of them while the parents were at work — they are treated no differently than strangers.

"I think it's absurd that a boy's father can legally keep his grandparents out of his life," says Kent, who wrote Solomon's Choice: A Guide to Custody for Ex-Husbands, Spurned Partners, & Forgotten Grandparents (Taylor Trade Publishing).

Families crumble for any number of reasons: divorce, the death of a parent, drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration. Grandparents in the U.S. do have rights and can seek visitation with grandchildren, but those rights vary from state to state. Understanding your basic rights can help ensure that your relationship with the grandchildren doesn't end should that with their parents. Of course, every case involves a unique set of facts and grandparents who find themselves suddenly cut off from grandchildren should consult a lawyer to discuss the course of action their specific situations require.

When Grandparents' Rights Changed

In June 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 decision on grandparents' visitation rights in the Troxel v. Granville case. This canceled out a Washington State law that permitted judges to grant visitation to any interested party so long as the visits were in the best interest of the child — even if the parents objected.

The Troxel v. Granville decision was ambiguous because while the majority of the justices agreed that Troxel should be decided a certain way, each had a different reason for doing so which resulted in six written opinions.

This makes it hard for state courts to interpret the decision. Despite this and the narrow set of facts in which the case dealt, Troxel v. Granville has become the basis for all subsequent discussion of grandparents' rights.

Parent Vs. Grandparent: Whose Call Is It?

The case dates back to 1993, when Brad Troxel committed suicide in Washington State. Brad left behind two daughters and their mother, Tommie Granville, whom he had never married. Brad and Tommie were estranged at the time of his death, but Brad's parents, Gary and Jenifer, kept visiting their grandchildren after the suicide. When Tommie remarried and her new husband adopted the daughters she'd had with Brad, Tommie limited the grandparents' visits.

The Troxels wanted more time with their grandchildren and went to court for it, citing Washington State's third-party visitation law, which said they had the right to visit so long as it was in the best interest of the children. A trial judge agreed.

The Supreme Court, however, did not and found the Washington State law "breathtakingly broad," arguing that it infringed upon parental rights. It struck down the Washington Supreme Court’s decision, which had granted the Troxel grandparents rights to more visitation.

While groups such as AARP filed court papers in favor of grandparents' rights, the parents' rights groups hailed the Supreme Court decision in favor of Tommie Granville a victory. Groups such as the Coalition for the Restoration of Parental Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union applauded the decision which gave “fit” parents the final say on how to raise their children — including whether grandparents could see them.

Laws Differ State by State

At the most basic level, all states require grandparents to prove that the visits they seek are in the best interest of the grandchild. This generally means grandparents must show that their visits won’t be harmful in any way, and that they aren’t abusive or otherwise dangerous to the child. Beyond this initial hurdle, each state has a different threshold for when it will allow grandparents to take a case to court.

Some states are more permissive when it comes to filing for visitation. Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland and New York require only the ground rule mentioned above — that visitation is in the best interest of the child — before grandparents can take a case to court.

Other states set more stringent requirements allowing grandparents to file a suit only if they were denied visitation altogether. Under current laws in Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah, grandparents don't have a case if parents permit them to see their grandchildren — no matter how infrequently.

In Minnesota and Pennsylvania, grandparents cannot make a legal case unless their grandchildren previously lived with them. Outside the U.S., grandparents may be surprised to learn how limited their rights are.

Burden of Proof

The most restrictive states, such as Florida, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, require proof that grandparents have a parent-child relationship with their grandchild, meaning they have often stood in for the child’s parents.

Depending on the state, these requirements can be as extreme. Grandparents may have to show they took care of the child full-time while parents were gone for extended periods of time or that they participated in typical parental duties — taking the child to doctor appointments or attending PTA meetings.

It's difficult to document a pre-established relationship with a grandchild, says Marsha Temlock, MA, the psychologist who wrote Your Child’s Divorce: What to Expect — What You Can Do (Impact Publishers, 2006). "You've got to get people to sign affidavits that document you've visited the children a certain number of times, or you may have to bring the children into the courtroom," she says.

The Trickle-Down from Troxel

The law is evolving in response to Troxel, on a state by state basis. The Ohio Supreme Court issued a 2005 decision finding that Troxel does not affect Ohio's laws on visitation rights. In Harrold v. Collier, Ohio's court differed from Troxel when it decided that grandparents could visit the children of their deceased daughter — against the wishes of the children's father.

In contrast, recent cases in the Texas Supreme Court have kept the state's grandparents' visitation laws in line with Troxel. In 2005, the Texas state legislature amended its old laws on grandparents' rights, stiffening the requirements by permitting grandparents access over a parent's objection only if denial of access would "significantly impair the child's physical health or emotional well-being."

The word "significantly" sets an extremely high bar for grandparents, says family lawyer Jimmy Verner of Dallas-based Verner & Brumley. "Your grandkids might be sad they won't be able to see you, but that's just not enough," he says.

Unless there is uniform guidance on a national level, say Kent, state laws will continue to fluctuate in ways that potentially harm grandparents’ rights.

Who's Guarding Grandparents?

On a national level, Senators Hillary Clinton (D) of New York and Olympia Snowe (R) of Maine introduced a bipartisan bill in March 2007 that could assist grandparents and other relatives taking over primary caretaker responsibilities for children. The Kinship Caregiver Support Act does not address custody or visitation issues specifically, but does offer support for the more than 6 million children in the United States living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives by expanding access to federal assistance programs for schooling, medical treatment and legal services.

The bill, supported by AARP and grandparents’ lobbying groups such as Generations United and Grandparents for Children's Rights, is still in the first stages of the legislative process and could undergo several revisions before going to a vote in the full Congress.

On a grassroots level, there is growing support for grandparents facing visitation or custodial issues with their grandchildren. AARP provides some informational resources on a national level, as does Grandparents Rights Organization, a Michigan-based nonprofit. Additionally, local groups such as California-based Grandparents as Parents, offer support programs to lend a caring hand to grandparents coping with the challenge of seeking visitation and custodial rights in their state.


My grandson was born 5 years ago. For the 1st 2 years, my ex and I raised him while Mom decided if she wanted to be a mom. During that time, we had a big disagreement, she didnt let me see him for 7 months and I took her to court for visitation and she signed over parental right to the father and step mom. Father had no problem letting us have visitation as long as we "followed the rules". We had him a couple times a month. Then a year ago Father committed suicide, the step mom adopted him, visitation was the same for about a month and then cut back in Sept, we went back to court again and she allowed 4 hrs a month and let us know as soon as the house sold they would be moving to another state. Now my grandson has been hospitalized for 3 weeks for untrollable temper and outbursts(we've never seen this behavior). She will not let us see the child. He was released and with 3 hours she said they were now moving to another state. Within 24 hrs of release he was back in the hospital for the same thing. There are 4 sets of grandparents, hers and they live with them, the fathers dad and he has visitation every other weekend, my ex and his fiancee and myself and my husband. The four of us are at ends, we have looked into so many different agencys. If anyone has any ideas on what we can do to just be able to see our grandbaby. We just want what's best for him. on 2013-04-21 16:13:15

My new grandaughter is the light of my life. I had to wait until I was in my 60's before I finally became a proud Mom-Mom! I sat for her when she was an infant and watched her grow and we established a bond that brings me more joy that I have every known. She loves her Mom-Mom and now that she's 2, we love to play pretend with her dolls in the castle I got for her which she loves whenever she comes to the house. I used to spend a lot of time with her but now that my son had to move out of state for his job, I only get to see her infrequently, on holidays and special occasions. This is killing me so I can't imagine what it would be like to be cut off from her if my son and my DIL should ever divorce. My son was in his 30's when he married and now has a new baby, so I don't see that every happening, but you never know! I would like to think my DIL is not the type to exclude me from my grandchildrens lives, even a litle bit. My time with my grandchildren is very little now as it is which is breaking my heart. Distance is somewhat of the issues, however my DIL's parents and family take my granddaughter places, keep her over night, etc. when I have never been able to do that. That is hurtful enough so I can't imagine not seeing them at all! Why don't we grandparents have more rights? These little ones are the children of OUR children. They are OUR flesh and blood too! Anyone who had studied this relationship will concur that the grandparent-grandchild relationship is imperative for a child's healthy upbringing. They learn wisdom, patience, and a safe place to go when they can't or won't confide in their own parents. Parent's are the disiplinarians, Grandparents are not for the most part, they are the spoilers and the fun people. I was very fortunate to have that experience with my grandmother. I loved my Mother so much, but my own Mom-Mom was special. Her house was special and fun. Her cookies were the best and I learned so much from just talking with her. I learned about what it was like when she was growing up as a child in the early 1900s. How will our grandchildren learn about these things if not from their grandparents. Most parents today are too busy working and running the kids here and there. My own two sons and their wives are a prime examples. As a single Mom, I had to work two jobs. Thank goodness for my Mom and Dad. They were life savers and adored my boys. GRANDPARENTS ARE NECESSARY!! In too many ways to count. I don't understand why this is such a complicated issue in the court system. It's not rocket science. It's very simple. It comes down to one thing and that's love and family. That's the problem today. We need to honor the love that families have built over time, instead of shattering their love instead. There are enough unhappy and shattered people in the world already, we don't need to creat more, and for what?
Our children are worth more and deserve more!

CAMA4664 on 2013-02-18 00:58:12

im in maine

motherof231211 on 2013-02-03 06:20:57

So my mother in law is trying to get rights to see our daughter but she is mentally unstable before my daughter was born she jumped on my husbands truck whose still alive and we are married and living together, and she was jumping crazy on the back of his truck screaming grab the gun so i can kill myself in front of you. Also she has non stop harrassed me and my husband since my daughter left the hospital after being born shes called me a bitch in front of my child whose now 2 and she knocked on our door just december 3rd and when i told her she needed to leave and shut our door and started banging on it and screaming to take our daughter calling me a bitch saying go ahead call the police i will tell the judge all about you and scaring my daughter. who is still afraid of anyone knocking on our door and is scared of our door. shes has threatened to take our kid or have someone take our daughter for a long time and i dont feel safe with her being around my daughter she thinks its funny that she says bad things about her grandsons mother and he said one day he hated his mother and she praised him for it. please help? and shes doing this because i went for a protection order that got dropped because my witnesses to all her harrassment didnt show to the court date. also she puts my husband down and has since he was a kid and his brother who lives with her they fist fight, his mother and his brother, and my husband has grown up seeing this since he was younger and never cared that it scared my husband. and they still do it i walked in one day before my daughter was born to her choking my husbands brother and him choking her back. His brother has broken walls in the house and the door glass and she Didnt care she got mad cause i called the cops and he was arrested but he attacked my husband grabbing his head and screaming at him for no reason. do you think she would win if my husband says these things in court or should we get a lawyer And she hasnt seen my daughter in over a year because i dont feel safe with her but shes tried but its not safe for my daughter.

motherof231211 on 2013-02-03 06:20:19