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Whether grandparents should be given court-ordered visitation rights. Va. HH. v. Elijah, 211 A.D.3d 1201 (N.Y. App. Div. 2022)


Va. HH. v. Elijah, 211 A.D.3d 1201 (N.Y. App. Div. 2022) involves an appeal from a Family Court order regarding visitation rights between the grandparents and the children of divorced parents. In New York, grandparents may seek visitation rights with their grandchildren under certain circumstances. The law acknowledges the importance of maintaining family relationships and allows grandparents to petition for visitation if they can demonstrate a sufficient existing relationship with their grandchildren or make efforts to establish one. This typically involves showing that the parents have frustrated the grandparent-grandchild relationship or that efforts to foster such a relationship have been made. Grandparents must prove that the court’s intervention is warranted in the best interests of the child.

However, obtaining visitation rights as a grandparent can be challenging. Courts prioritize the rights of fit parents and presume that their decisions align with the child’s best interests. Therefore, grandparents must overcome this presumption by providing compelling evidence that visitation with them would benefit the child and enhance their overall well-being.

Factors considered by the court include the nature and quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship, the ability of the grandparents to nurture the child, and the reasons for any objections raised by the parents. Additionally, the court may take into account the child’s preferences and the recommendations of any attorneys appointed to represent the child’s interests.

Background Facts
The children’s parents, Elijah II. (referred to as the father) and Melanie II. (referred to as the mother), are divorced, and they share custody of their son and daughter, born in 2015 and 2018, respectively. Virginia HH. and Leonard HH., the children’s maternal grandparents, sought visitation rights with their grandchildren by filing a petition in September 2019.

Following a series of hearings held in November 2020 and January 2021, the Family Court of Broome County granted the grandparents’ petition, allowing them visitation with the children. The court established a visitation schedule that gradually increased in duration, eventually permitting the grandparents to have the children stay with them for one full weekend each month.

The grandparents demonstrated standing to seek visitation with the daughter, as required by law. They presented evidence showing their ongoing relationship with the children, including regular visits during the daughter’s infancy and continued efforts to maintain contact after the parents ceased visitation. Despite the parents’ objections, the court determined that the grandparents had established a sufficient relationship with the daughter to warrant court intervention.

Both the mother and the father separately appealed the order granting visitation rights to the grandparents.

Whether the grandparents had standing to seek visitation rights with their grandchildren and whether the visitation granted by Family Court was in the best interests of the children.

While the grandparents were found to have standing to seek visitation with their granddaughter, the Appellate Court reversed Family Court’s decision to grant visitation. The court determined that Family Court’s decision lacked a solid basis in the evidence presented. Additionally, the court highlighted the significant tension between the parents and the grandparents, which was not adequately considered in the visitation decision.

Family Court’s decision to grant visitation was based on the belief that the children would benefit from frequent contact with loving family members. However, the evidence presented during the hearing contradicted this belief. Testimony from the parents and other witnesses highlighted the negative impact of visitation with the grandparents on the son, particularly due to his special needs and challenges with transitions.

The court emphasized the importance of considering the children’s best interests, particularly in cases where there is a presumption that a fit parent’s decisions align with those interests. In this case, the court found that the parents’ objections to visitation were well-founded, given the adverse effects on the children’s well-being.

The Appellate Court reversed the Family Court’s decision to grant visitation to the grandparents and remitted the case for further proceedings before a different judge. The court stressed the need to appoint an attorney for the children to represent their interests adequately. Until the new hearing takes place, any visitation with the grandparents is to be conducted only with the express mutual consent of both parents.

This case highlights the complexities involved in determining visitation rights in family law proceedings and underscores the paramount importance of prioritizing the best interests of the children involved.

If you are facing a visitation or custody case, consult with an experienced New York child custody lawyer at Stephen Bilkis & Associates.

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