Over the River and Through the Court to Grandmother’s House We Go

A recently decided Wisconsin Supreme Court case has made it easier (slightly) for grandparents, great-grandparents and stepparents to receive court-ordered visitation of their grandchildren, great-grandchildren or step-children. The case of In re Marriage of Meister, 367 Wis. 2d 447 (2016) removed a previously held rule that a grandparent, great-grandparent, or stepparent needed to prove a parent-child relationship in order to secure visitation rights under Wisconsin Statute §767.43(1). The statute provides that certain people can apply to a court for visitation rights of children. Previously, the court had decided that parents, grandparents and stepparents needed to prove a parent-child relationship. The Meister court decided on a different statutory interpretation, deciding that only “other persons” needed to prove a parent-child relationship, and the clause did not apply to grandparents, great-grandparents or stepparents. The ruling makes sense from a statutory interpretation and legislative history standpoint.

I mentioned earlier that this ruling made it only slightly easier for grandparents to be granted visitation rights. This is because in general, family law is not at all black and white. Of all areas of the law I’ve ever practiced in, family law is the least predictable and most prone to case-by-case analysis and guesswork. Proving a parent-child relationship, especially when each parent-child relationship varies by family, was not typically the biggest hurdle grandparents faced when trying to get visitation of their grandchildren. There are two other monumental hurdles. First, there needs to be evidence that a set visitation schedule with a non-parent is in the child’s best interest. Second, when determining the best interest, the court must give special weight to a fit parent’s opinions regarding the child’s best interest as part of any best interest determination. This requirement was first determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Troxel v. Granville: “The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment protects the fundamental right of parents to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control of their children.” 530 U.S. at 66, 120 S.Ct. 2054.

The Meister case was interesting for two reasons. First, the grandchildren, not the grandmother, were the ones that appealed. The concurring opinion noted that had the issue been brought up, the case would have been dismissed because the grandchildren didn’t have standing to appeal. The grandchildren do not have a right to ask the court to be granted grandparent visitation under this statute, so they could not appeal a ruling that denied it. The issue was not addressed by either party, and thus the court didn’t address it. Second, the grandmother actually passed away before the appeal was filed. Generally, when this happens, the case is moot (meaning there is no reason to decide it, because nobody will benefit from the ruling), and the appeal would be dismissed. However, the parties allowed the case to move forward because it is an issue that is constantly in front of courts on grandparent visitation cases. What we don’t know is whether the grandmother in this case would have actually been granted visitation or not. This case didn’t actually grant the grandmother visitation, and wouldn’t have even if she had still been alive. It merely decided she didn’t need to prove a parent-child relationship. The circuit court would have needed to decide if it was in the children’s best interest after giving special weight to the parent’s opinion.

Practically, unless there is a serious problem with one or both parents, a grandparent still has a difficult time making a case that their view of what is in a child’s best interest is correct versus a parent. In addition, a grandparent needs to consider whether their personal feelings, and set time with their grandchildren, are more important than their relationship with their own child, or their child’s spouse. I’ve never seen a case like this where the family came out on the other side unscathed. In my experience, the best interests of the child are almost never served in a courtroom.