Do Grandparents Have Visitation Rights in D.C.?

A look at grandparent visitation rules in the District of Columbia.

Many adults cherish their childhood memories of time spent with grandparents. A grandparent's role, while not the same as a parent's, is special, but parents generally call the shots when it comes to fostering a grandparent-grandchild relationship. Grandparents seeking visitation with their grandchildren must show that visits are essential to the children's best interests.This article provides an overview of grandparent visitation and custody rights in the District of Columbia. If you have specific questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Grandparent Visitation Under Troxel

State laws govern grandparent visitation rights. Each state's grandparent visitation statute is modeled after principles set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court case Troxel v. Granville. In Troxel, the Supreme Court stressed that judges must consider a child's best interests and the parents' wishes in any grandparent visitation decision. In other words, a court must give special weight to parent's reasons for preventing grandparent visitation. The law presumes that a parent is acting in a child's best interests, and a grandparent must prove otherwise to obtain visitation or custody.

Grandparent Visitation in D.C.

There are no statutes controlling grandparent visitation in the District of Columbia. Instead, rules are based on the same factors used to determine grandparent custody. Simply stated, a court can award visitation to a third-party, such as a grandparent, when a parent's objections to visitation are unreasonable, and visitation would serve a child's best interests. A grandparent can overcome the presumption that a parent who prevents visitation is acting in a child's best interests by demonstrating the following through clear and convincing evidence:

  • the parents abandoned the child or are unwilling to care for the child
  • that parental custody is detrimental to the child's physical or emotional well-being, or
  • that exceptional circumstances exist which rebut the parental presumption.

Grandparents and Custody of Grandchildren

Courts in D.C. apply a presumption that parental custody is generally in the child's best interests. This means that courts usually lean toward keeping biological parents and their children together, even in situations where the grandparent is more financially stable or better equipped to care for the child. But, grandparents can rebut (overcome) this presumption. A court may transfer custody if the grandparent can show that:

  • the child's parents have been deemed unfit (or the presumption in favor of parental custody has otherwise been rebutted), and
  • awarding custody to the grandparents is in the child's best interests.

Generally, a grandparent can't seek custody as part of the parents' divorce proceedings. A grandparent can only file a petition for custody or intervene in an existing custody action when:

  • the child's parent (who has been the primary caretaker for the last 3 years) consents to the custody petition, or
  • the grandparent has:
    • lived with the child in the same household for 4 of the last 6 months, and
    • assumed the majority of childcare and parental duties, including providing clothing, food, shelter, education, and emotional and financial support to the child.

For example, in one divorce case, a lower court judge wrongly awarded the maternal grandmother custody of her grandchildren. The higher court overturned the lower court's, decision because the child's mother (primary caretaker) did not consent to the custody change, and the grandparent hadn't assumed parental duties. Although the children's father was abusive, and the child's mother was accused of negligence, the court couldn't award custody to a grandparent without first finding both parents unfit or without the mother's consent.

In another D.C. case, a court denied a maternal grandmother's request for custody. The child's parents were unmarried, and the child resided with her grandmother and mother at the time the mother died. The child's father occasionally visited with his daughter, but immediately sought custody following the mother's death. The grandmother likewise sought custody, but she wasn't able to establish that the father neglected the child or that living with him didn't serve the child's best interests. As a result, custody was awarded to the child's natural parent—the father.

Grandparent Rights and Adoption

An adoption may occur at the request of the child's parents or may be a result of state intervention. In either case, an adoption typically severs all ties between a child and biological parents and grandparents. But what happens when a grandparent wants to intervene and adopt the child? Even in cases where a parent no longer has physical custody of a child, and the child is eligible for adoption, that parent's wishes must still be given weighty consideration. This rule does not apply if a judge has terminated a parent's parental rights. However, grandparents aren't automatically placed in a special position when it comes to adopting a grandchild. Ultimately, a judge's decision will be based on a parent's wishes and the best interests of the child.

In one D.C. case, a mother stipulated to neglect and a contested adoption proceeding involving the child ensued. The mother's parents (child's grandparents) and a foster parent both requested custody of the child. The foster mother had cared for the child for a few months and had already formed a bond. Even though the child's mother wanted the grandparents to adopt the child, the court determined that keeping the child with the foster mother would serve the child's best interests. While the court recognized the importance of biological ties, the decision to reject the grandparents' request and allow the foster mom to adopt came down to the child's needs.

If you have questions regarding grandparent visitation or custody in the District of Columbia, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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