Grandparents often feel that they have an absolute right to see their grandchildren, even if the parents of the children do not want the grandparents involved. While children often benefit from having relationships with their grandparents and other extended family members, grandparents do not automatically have a legal right to do. Only parents have a legal right to custody of their children. A parent’s access to their children will only be limited or denied if it is shown to be in the best interests of the children. Grandparents do not have a similar right.
In Matter of Wilson v. McGlinchey, the New York Court of Appeals considered whether the visitation rights of grandparents should have been terminated. The mother of the child had been estranged from her parents, the grandparents of the child, well before the child was born. When the child was 4 months old, the grandparents petitioned Family Court for visitation. The child’s parents were vehemently against it. However, the parties eventually reached a visitation agreement such that the grandparents were permitted 8 hours per month with the child. The agreement was incorporated into a Family Court order.
Several months after the order was established, the parents filed a petition with Family Court to terminate visitation between their daughter and the grandparents. The parents alleged that circumstances had changed such that visitation with the grandparents was no longer in the best interests of the child. The parents noted that the visitations did not go well, that she had difficulties getting the grandparents to leave after visitation, and that the visitations upset the child. The Family Court denied the parents’ petition to discontinue the grandparent visitation, and the parents appealed.
The Appellate Division reversed and granted the parent’s petition to vacate the visitation order. The Appellate Division found that there were changed circumstances in that the visits caused the child, the mother, and the grandmother emotional distress. The court further concluded that the parents and grandparents were incapable of putting their differences aside and as a result, the visitation was negatively impacted. Because of the animosity between the parents and the grandparents, the court concluded that the child would likely be harmed by the visitation. The grandparents appealed to the Court of Appeals of New York.
The Court of Appeals upheld the decision of the Appellate Division vacating the visitation order. The standard for a modification to a custody order is that there must be changed circumstances. The grandparents argue that the circumstances had not changed because the animosity between the parents and the grandparents existed at the time the original visitation order was entered. The Court of Appeals disagreed with this argument. While it was true that the parties did not get along at the time of the original order, the parties’ relationship had since continued to deteriorate. The culmination of the deterioration was the incident when the mother had to call the police to remove the grandparents from her house following a visit with the child. Further, the Court of Appeals was persuaded by testimony from the Law Guardian that the visitation caused the mother to experience a great deal of stress that carried over to the child. Ultimately the court concluded that while a relationship with grandparents can be beneficial, if it starts to cause harm to the child, doing what is in the best interests of the child takes precedence.