In today’s world, grandparents’ roles in their grandchildren’s lives are growing—from taking them on vacation and celebrating holidays to supporting their academic and athletic pursuits and shaping their lifelong values. But what if the children’s parents deny grandparents their desired time?
In Missouri, there is a way around that—albeit it difficult, local attorneys say. Grandparents can file a petition in family court for visitation rights if they face one of the following four roadblocks to their grandchildren:
• The parents of the child have filed for divorce.
• One parent of the child is deceased and the surviving parent denies reasonable visitation.
• The child has lived in the grandparent’s home for at least six months within the 2-year period preceding the filing of the petition.
• A grandparent is unreasonably denied visitation with the child for more than 90 days.
Kirk Stange of Stange Law Firm emphasizes the importance of Missouri’s visitation law because of the increasingly significant role of grandparents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 report, 6 million grandchildren were living in homes where a grandparent was head of the household. That number has doubled since 2000.
Grandparent visitation cases commonly arise when the children’s parents and grandparents have relationship conflicts. “Grandparents have two choices: File for visitation or try to rectify the relationship with their child so they can see their grandchildren,” Stange explains. “But, oftentimes, the relationship is too strained.” So the grandparents must head to court. Because obtaining visitation can be a long and complex process, Stange recommends seeking the advice of a family law firm specializing in grandparent visitation rights. “Grandparents should hire an attorney because it’s hard to do this without one,” he notes.
In the instance of a divorce between the children’s parents, grandparents can either intervene in a current divorce case or file a petition for visitation. These processes can take up to several months because of backed up family court dockets, Stange notes.
And if a grandparent is unreasonably denied visitation with a grandchild for more than 90 days, there are even more variables. “If the child’s parents are married and living together, then there is no case because the court says the parents have the fundamental right to raise their child how they choose,” explains Zofia Garlicka Sowers of Carmody MacDonald. “Overall, it’s pretty hard to obtain visitation because the presumption is the parents know what’s best for the children.”
When judging grandparent visitation cases, Sowers says the court always looks at the child’s best interest. Judges determine whether or not the visitation would impair the child’s emotional health or physical development, Stange adds.
While local attorneys say there is no typical visitation schedule, grandparents can sometimes be awarded weekends, some holidays and partial summer hours. “Typically, under the grandparent visitation statute, they can’t get as much visitation as a parent can get,” Stange says. Sowers adds that it also depends on what the grandparents are looking for. “They may want to see their grandkids for a few hours here and there, or they may want more time because there is a problem with the parents.”
In the case of larger issues with the children’s parents, some grandparents go to the extent of filing for guardianship, or full-time custody. In this case, it must be proven that the children’s parents are unfit—meaning, for example, they are drug-users, have mental health issues or fail to provide appropriate housing.
Whether grandparents are seeking visitation or guardianship, the experience of a family law firm can be invaluable. “Especially with contested cases, these processes can take a long time,” Stange says. “Grandparents have to be patient.”