Sometimes, family law can present challenging factual issues for the courts. In deciding custody and visitation matters regarding three young children recently, the courts were handed evidence of two parents who had numerous flaws and weaknesses as caregivers. The maternal grandparents, however, offered a degree of stability that the parents’ homes had each allegedly lacked previously. Nevertheless, and despite the grandparents’ close involvement with the children in the past, they were not entitled to any court-ordered visitation, according to a recent Court of Special Appeals decision. The ruling is very instructive on the issue of grandparent visitation rights. If the parents are fit (as the trial court found both parents in this case to be), they have a fundamental constitutional right to control whom their children visit, including the grandparents.
The heart of this case centered upon visitation with three children: Mackenzie, Alex, and Max. The children’s parents divorced in early 2014, when the kids were 10, 6, and 3. The divorce gave the mother custody and the father visitation rights. By the following summer, though, the situation had allegedly deteriorated at the mother’s home. According to the father, the mother was abusing drugs, was financially unstable, and was not providing secure housing or proper supervision for the children. Based on this evidence, the trial court gave temporary custody to the father.
Five months later, the maternal grandparents entered the case, asking the court to grant them custody of the children, or alternatively visitation. They accused both parents of having severe limitations in caring for the children. The father, who allegedly had bipolar disorder but was not taking his medications, was, along with his girlfriend, subjecting the kids to severe verbal, mental, and emotional abuse, while the mother was abusing prescription medicine and changing residences very frequently, often moving in with various male partners.
The trial court appointed a custody evaluator, who uncovered several disturbing things in each of the parents’ homes. However, while the case was ongoing, the parents agreed to a temporary resolution of the custody dispute, which gave the mother primary physical custody and both the parents joint legal custody. The grandparents maintained their legal action, though, arguing that the parents were unfit or alternatively that extraordinary circumstances existed to warrant granting them custody or at least court-ordered visitation. The counselor appointed by the court recommended that the grandparents get the children at least one weekend a month, along with additional time during the summer.
After all this evidence, the trial court denied the grandparents’ request for custody but awarded them visitation. The mother appealed that ruling. She argued in her appeal that, after the trial court ruled that both the father and she were fit and that no exceptional circumstances existed in the case, it was improper to impose court-ordered grandparent visitation.
The appeals court agreed with that argument. The court pointed out that the Constitution gives parents a fundamental right to raise their children as they deem proper. One element of that right is to control with whom the children have visitation. Not even the “best interests of the children” standard of family law trumps that fundamental constitutional right. Courts can only order visitation with third parties, including grandparents, if the court first finds the existence of parental unfitness or exceptional circumstances.
In this case, the trial court made an explicit ruling that both the mother and father, while flawed, were legally fit as parents, and that no exceptional circumstances as defined by Maryland law were present in this family situation. Those findings by the trial judge closed the door on the grandparents having any legal right to demand court-ordered visitation.
Visitation issues, whether you are a parent, step-parent, or grandparent, require a detailed understanding of both the facts regarding the family and the law as well. If you are involved in a visitation dispute, contact Anthony A. Fatemi, an experienced Maryland child custody attorney who has spent many years helping families deal with their visitation, custody, and other family law issues. For diligent and knowledgeable representation, contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
More blog posts:
Maryland’s Highest Court Recognizes ‘De Facto Parent’ Status, Allows Woman’s Ex-Wife to Seek Visitation, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, July 29, 2016
Maryland Court Affirms Decision Denying Parent Visitation in Child Custody Dispute, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 30, 2014