Grandparents’ Right of Visitation

In New York, grandparents have a right to seek assistance of the court to obtain visitation with their grandchildren. That right is included in both the Domestic Relations Law and the Family Court Act. Section 72(1) of the Domestic Relations Law states that

“[w]here either or both of the parents of a minor child, residing within this state, is, or are deceased, or where circumstances show that conditions exist which equity would see fit to intervene, a grandparent may apply to [supreme or family court] and . . . the court, by order after due notice to the parent or any other person or party having the care, custody, and control of such child, to be given in such manner as the court shall prescribe, may make such directions as the best interest of the child may require, for visitation rights for such grandparent or grandparents in respect to such child.”

Section 72(1) “does not create an absolute or automatic right of visitation. Instead, the statute provides a procedural mechanism for grandparents to acquire standing to seek visitation with a minor grandchild”. Wilson v. McGlinchey, 2 N.Y.3d 375, 380 (2004). When grandparents seek visitation under §72(1), the court must undertake a two-part inquiry. “First, [the court] must find standing based on death or equitable circumstances”; and “[i]f [the court] concludes that the grandparents have established the right to be heard, then it must determine if visitation is in the best interest of the grandchild”. Emanuel S. v. Joseph E., 78 N.Y.2d 178, 181 (1991).

Since 1976, visitation may be awarded to grandparents in matrimonial actions. The 1976 amendment added the following to DRL §240: “Such direction [of a court in a matrimonial action] may provide for reasonable visitation rights to the maternal or paternal grandparents of any child of the parties.” In New York, the statute provides that grandparents may obtain visitation rights even though their child is not deceased, and the nuclear family is intact.

Last year, the Court of Appeals in E.S. v. P.D., 8 N.Y.3d 150 (2007), unanimously rejected a constitutional challenge to New York’s grandparent visitation law. In upholding the New York Law which permits grandparents, under certain circumstances, to seek visitation with their grandchildren, the Court distinguished the New York law from the overly broad Washington law struck down by the United States Supreme Court in Troxel v Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000).

The statute invalidated in Troxel permitted “‘[a]ny person’ to petition for visitation rights ‘at any time,’ and authorize[d] that court to grant such visitation rights whenever ‘visitation may serve the best interest of the child’” (Troxel, 530 U.S. at 60 [quoting Wash Rev Code § 26.10.160(3) (1994)]). The Washington statute explicitly applied a presumption in favor of grandparent visitation, placing on the parent “the burden of disproving that visitation would be in the best interest” of her children.

The New York Statute, on the other hand, is based upon the presumption that the parent’s wishes represent the best interests of the children. The Court noted that:

. . . courts should not lightly intrude on the family relationship against a fit parent’s wishes. The presumption that a fit parent’s decisions are in the child’s best interests is a strong one. And while, as we made clear in Wilson, the problems created by parent-grandparent antagonism cannot be ignored, an acrimonious relationship is generally not sufficient cause to deny visitation. “It is almost too obvious to state that, in cases where grandparents must use legal procedures to obtain visitation rights, some degree of animosity exists between them and the party having custody of the child or children. Were it otherwise, visitation could be achieved by agreement” (Lo Presti v. Lo Presti, 40 N.Y.2d 522, 526 (1976)).

While this presumption creates a significant burden for the grandparent, the grandmother in this case was able to overcome it, because from the time the child was almost four until he was seven, grandmother was the primary caretaker. The court then considered all of the many circumstances bearing upon whether it was in the child’s best interest for his relationship with grandmother to continue, such as whether the father’s objections to grandmother’s access to the child were reasonable, her caregiving skills and attitude toward father, the law guardian’s assessment and the child’s desires, before granting visitation.

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