Local Forum Explores Grandparents' Rights After Divorce


(Friday, October 12, 2007 10:34 AM EDT)

Ending a marriage can be a seriously life-altering experience for couples and their children, but they aren't the only ones affected.

Grandparents also feel the impact, and knowledge of their custody and visitation rights may help them navigate the terrain of their child's divorce more easily.

The first thing grandparents should realize is that courts generally will award custody to one of the parents because of “parental presumption,” the legal theory that it is in the best interest of a child to be raised by his or her parents.

“It's a right as a parent to raise a child,” said Kelly Pulsifer, staff attorney for Legal Services of Northern Virginia, who recently gave a lecture on the subject at the Walter Reed Senior Center.

Some factors the court uses to determine custody include: the age of the child, the age of the parents, how the parents will address the child's education, mental and medical needs and whether the parents will foster relationships with other family members.

Children's preferences also are taken into account, but are not the sole determinant in custody cases.

Even though courts usually rule in favor of parents in custody cases, if the mother and father are found unfit, a grandparent can step in and gain custody.

“If a parent can be found unfit because of [physical] abuse, drug and alcohol abuse or criminal activity, then grandparents' rights will trump the parent's rights,” Pulsifer said. “Parental presumption also is gone if the parent abandons the child or has signed off custody.”

Best-interest standards also are used to determine visitation rights for grandparents.

Since one of the standards is “fostering relationships with other family members,” courts generally view a child's contact with his or her grandparents as a positive thing.

“It's in a child's interest to have contact with grandma, unless grandma has harmed the child,” Pulsifer said. “Courts are interested in keeping families together.”

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