Grandparents and stepparents can grow very close to the children in their lives. When this relationship is disrupted by divorce or other separations, all parties suffer. A custodial parent might, for example, attempt to prevent visits with the parents of the non-custodial parent, or with an ex-stepparent.
Until recently, only natural or adoptive parents enjoyed the legal right to post-divorce visitation. Now, however, courts in most states will grant visitation rights to other relatives, such as grandparents and stepparents, as long as they can demonstrate that this visitation is in the best interests of the child.
Visitation Orders Are Based on Several Factors
A court is more likely to order visitation if the grandparent or stepparent had a long relationship with the child, or lived with the child. Visitation is also more likely to be granted if the child is emotionally dependent on the person or expresses a preference to see that person regularly. The court may also consider financial support the person has provided for the child.
The Burden of Proof Varies by State
State laws differ on the procedure for deciding visitation rights. Colorado grants grandparents a legal right to visitation, barring proof of harm to the child, even if the child's family is intact. New Jersey requires grandparents to prove the child would be harmed without visitation. Most states treat stepparent visitation using the same standards as grandparent visitation. However, in some states, such as South Dakota, stepparents do not have the right to seek visitation.
The Court May Grant Parental Authority
It is difficult to get a court to order custody to someone other than a parent. As long as the parents are still alive, they must be proven unfit. A grandparent might be granted custody, for example, if the parents abuse the child, are addicted to drugs, or neglect the child.
Even if it's proven that the parents are unfit, the court may grant custody to another blood relative before granting it to a stepparent, if the court determines that this is in the best interests of the child. A grandparent or stepparent who wins custody will be appointed the child's legal guardian.
A Child Custody Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding child custody and visitation by grandparents and stepparents is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a child custody lawyer.