The anniversary of notorious celebrity Anna Nicole Smith's death 12 years ago may seem unrelated to family law, but in actuality, her life was fraught with a series of dramatic incidents involving divorce, paternity suits and custody battles over her daughter, Dannelynn Birkhead. In the midst of multiple men who claimed to be the father, Smith's mother, Virgie Mae Hogan, fought to assert her rights as the child's biological grandparent. Hogan recently spoke of her struggle to see her granddaughter, claiming that the father, Larry Birkhead has refused to let her see Dannielynn since 2010. Birkhead has denied these allegations, saying in an interview that Hogan knows how to reach him if she wishes to see Dannielynn.
While many of us would question Hogan's decision to speak publicly about such sensitive issues, it does bring to light the very real struggle of countless grandparents who yearn to be a part of their grandchildren's lives. Visitation rights for grandparents has always been a controversial issue, mainly because it's a direct challenge to one's parental rights. These rights include raising one's children without interference from the courts, provided that the child is not in imminent danger from abuse and/or neglect. It's also a well-established rule that parents and grandparents are not on equal footing when it comes to custodial rights, thus grandparents bear the burden of proof should they be granted a hearing.
So just what does a grandparent have to prove in order to be granted visitation? The most important factor, as in any case involving children, is the child's best interests. Thus, it must be proven to the judge's satisfaction that not allowing the grandparents to see the child would have a seriously harmful effect on the child's life. For example, a child may have developed an exceptionally close relationship with his grandparents because he was raised by them for several years until the parents were in a better situation to take care of him. In that type of situation, denying access to the grandparents could cause the child to suffer significant psychological damage.
Even with compelling circumstances, it's ultimately very difficult to go against the wishes of the parent. Their rights have legal precedence in cases such as Troxel v. Granville, in which the US Supreme Court ruled that Washington statutes violated a parent's fundamental right to the “care, custody and control” of their children. With such considerable barriers in their way, grandparents should consult an experienced family law attorney about their chances in court. In many cases, your attorney may advise ways to strengthen your case, such as expert testimony from social workers and child therapists. These experts can help you assert specific, legally valid claims of harm that could befall your grandchildren should they be denied contact with you, rather than broad blanket statements that tend to come off as accusations and personal judgments. For more information on your grandparent visitation rights, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.