As a Long Island Family Law lawyer practicing in Nassau County and Suffolk County, I have seen some very special relationships between grandparents and their grandchildren.
The relationship between a grandparent and grandchild is often an important part of family life and child development because grandparents often offer a source of steady, experienced support throughout a child’s upbringing. Although there is a legally recognized value in the grandparent-grandchild relationship, the complexity of family dynamics and relationships often make the determination of grandparent rights difficult. Courts in Nassau County and Suffolk County on Long Island, New York often view the facts on a case-by-case basis. As an increasing number of grandparents care for grandchildren while both parents work outside the home and play an important role in a child’s life, grandparents’ rights have become an increasing concern for all family members.
The rights of grandparents to visitation with grandchildren on Long Island are governed by New York State Domestic Relations Law Section 72. Grandparents have the right to petition for visitation rights with their grandchildren; however, this section of the law merely serves as a means by which grandparents may assert their rights to visitation – it does not grant an automatic right. Under certain circumstances, such as the death of one of the child’s parents, the law is relatively clear with respect to the grandparents’ right to maintain a relationship with the child. However, in other circumstances, such as where hostile relationships and animosity within the family result in barriers to grandparent visitation, grandparents’ rights become less clear. Nevertheless, the law exists to protect grandparents and grandchildren, and Section 72 has been applied uniquely to varying circumstances.
Grandparents may petition for visitation rights when they are deprived of contact with their grandchild because of (1) the death of their child, (2) the divorce of their child, or (3) the adoption of the grandchild. However, in some cases, the court may extend the grandparents’ rights to visitation to cases when visitation is being withheld by the parents.
While the best interests of the child are an important consideration and given significant weight by Nassau County and Suffolk County courts, in general, courts in New York also look at the impact of the visitation on the family as a whole. In fact, the Court of Appeals held that the best interests of the child cannot be the only factor considered in granting visitation to grandparents. Courts may also consider the rights of parents to educate and socialize their children in a way that they feel is appropriate.
The difficulty lies in weighing the best interests of the child against those of the parents, and even the family as a whole. For example, if an extraordinary circumstance exists, such as an extended disruption of custody in which the grandparents were the sole caretaker of the child, then the best interests of the child may be given increased weight in a court’s decision. A lengthy separation between a parent and child during which the child resided with the grandparents may suggest that the grandparents are the natural substitute guardians for the child, and that visitation should be granted.
In such circumstances where there is a lengthy separation between a parent and child, there is often an issue pertaining the parent’s stability or mental health, a factor which Nassau County or Suffolk County Family Courts will likely take into consideration upon hearing a petition for grandparent’s visitation rights. When the grandparents care for the grandchildren for years or even months at a time, there is a strong possibility that their rights will be protected by the law. In this situation, the best interests of the child are at stake in that denial of grandparent visitation after such an arrangement may be damaging to the child and result in the loss of a secure and stable relationship.
Family members may wish to enter into private, consensual agreements regarding child visitation to avoid what can often be a stressful experience in Nassau County Family Court or Suffolk County Family Court. Some may be of the opinion that grandparent visitation laws encourage courts to intervene in private family affairs. Indeed, compromise is often in the best interests of all involved. However, when a compromise cannot be reached, certain family members have rights that are recognized by the law.
It is also important to understand the difference between grandparent visitation and grandparent custody. Grandparent custody may be granted in instances of child abuse or neglect, or a termination of parental rights. Visitation may be granted to grandparents in cases where a child is adopted outside of the family, one of the child’s parents passes away or the child’s parents are divorced. However, in most cases, adoption of the child outside the family will foreclose any right of the grandparents to obtain custody of the child.
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