As of today, July 1, 2015, Florida will become the latest state to begin recognizing the importance of establishing grandparent’s rights under certain circumstances. Governor Rick Scott signed legislation June 11, 2015 that will create a pathway for grandparents to establish rights of access and visitation in limited circumstances. There have been efforts in the past to recognize grandparents’ rights, however, prior to this bill being signed by the Governor, grandparents in Florida had no legal rights of access or time-sharing to their grandchildren. This legislation is a big step forward for those who would argue that grandparents should, at a minimum, be afforded an opportunity to present a case in front of a neutral judge for a determination of their ability to spend time with their grandchildren.
Spurred, in part, by the case of missing Central Florida mother Michelle Parker, whose children have been at the center of a custody dispute between Parker’s parents and the children’s father, who has long been suspected in the mother’s disappearance, this new law will create a legal avenue for grandparents to petition the Courts for visitation under certain circumstances. It is important to note, however, that there is no blanket set of rights established for all grandparents, and only under appropriate circumstances, after a full consideration of the unique facts of each case, will the Court establish rights of visitation for the grandparents.
To more fully understand in what situations a grandparent may be entitled to (i.e. visitation), we must dissect the bill itself. The bill states, “Upon the filing of a petition by a grandparent for visitation … the court may award reasonable visitation to the grandparent … if the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that a parent is unfit or that there is significant harm to the child, that visitation is in the best interests of the minor child, and that the visitation will not materially harm the parent-child relationship.” Now while this may seem like a open door for all grandparents to start petitioning the Courts for their visitation rights, the legislature seems to have intended to only include exceptional circumstances to warrant the establishment of such rights for the grandparents. In fact, some of those circumstances would include when a parent has been killed, is in a vegetative state, or is missing. It would also include when the other parent has been convicted of a felony or an offense of violence evincing behavior that poses a substantial threat of harm to the minor child’s health or welfare.
So what does this all actually mean in terms of a grandparent’s right to establish visitation for their grandchildren? Well, for starters, in order for a grandparent to file their petition in Court, there must be allegations that a parent is unfit or that there is significant harm being caused to child, and that establishing rights of visitation for the grandparents will not interfere with the relationship between the child and the parent, and as is always the case with any family law matter, the Court must consider whether such visitation with the grandparents is in the best interest of the minor children at issue.
Contact Attorney Russell J. Frank at [email protected] to learn more about where grandparent rights stand in Florida today and where they are headed after July 1, 2015.