Do Grandparents Have Visitation Rights in Rhode Island?

A look at grandparent visitation in Rhode Island.

Grandparents can provide support to both parents and grandchildren. Yet, parents are most likely to cut off a grandparent's contact with a grandchild during tumultuous situations like death, divorce, or separation – times when parents and grandchildren need support the most. In those situations, a grandparent can petition the court for visitation privileges with a grandchild. A judge will evaluate the unique circumstances of your case to determine if grandparent visitation is appropriate.

Like a traditional custody case, a child's best interests are central in cases involving grandparent visitation rights. It's important to understand the laws of your state before seeking grandparent visitation privileges. This article provides an overview of grandparent visitation rights in Rhode Island. If after reading this article you have questions, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of grandparent visitation laws under Troxel

In a discussion about grandparent visitation rights, you may hear someone bring up the Troxel v. Granville case. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed an appeal regarding the constitutionality of Washington's grandparent visitation law. The Troxel case outlined some important rules regarding grandparent visitation that every state now follows.

There isn't a federal law governing grandparent visitation rights. Each state has its own grandparent visitation laws, though some states have stricter rules than others. Yet, under the Troxel case, every state's grandparent visitation law must evaluate a child's best interests. Additionally, a court can't presume that grandparent visitation is automatically in a child's best interests. Instead, a judge will review a parent's reasons for opposing grandparent visitation, a child's physical and emotional needs, and the relationship between the grandparent and grandchild to determine if visitation is appropriate.

Grandparent visitation in Rhode Island

A grandparent can't petition for visitation unless one of the following events has occurred: one or both of the child's parents have died, the child's parents are in the process of obtaining a divorce, or a custody proceeding is ongoing. In one Rhode Island case, a judge denied grandparent visitation because additional litigation didn't serve the child's best interests. The child's mother had recently passed away, and 18 days later, the grandparents sought to obtain an independent child evaluation of their grandchild. The judge determined that some peace and rest from litigation was more important for the child's well-being than continuing grandparent visitation.

Rhode Island law allows grandparent visitation following a court hearing and evidence that shows:

  • grandparent visitation serves the grandchild's best interests
  • the grandparent is a fit a proper person to exercise visitation rights with the grandchild
  • the grandparent repeatedly attempted to visit the grandchild during the 30 days preceding the grandparent filing a petition for visitation, but the parent(s) denied contact
  • the grandparent cannot obtain visitation without court intervention, and
  • the grandparent demonstrated that the parent's refusal to allow grandparent visitation is unreasonable.

For example, in another Rhode Island case, a set of maternal grandparents were denied visitation following their daughter's death (the child's mother) because it didn't serve the child's best interests. The grandparents were fit and proper to care for the child and had a strong relationship with their granddaughter, but the child's father prohibited grandparent visitation following the mother's death and his own remarriage. Grandparent visitation only fueled animosity between the grandparents and the child's father. The court determined that visitation wasn't appropriate, even though the child expressed her desire to maintain contact with her grandparents, because visitation was a source of stress for the child. What this case shows is that a child's relationship with a parent is more important than maintaining frequent contact with grandparents.

When can a grandparent obtain custody of a grandchild?

A biological or adoptive parent has an inherent right to custody of his or her child. Third parties such as grandparents can't interfere with a parent's right to custody, unless the parent is unfit or one parent has died and the surviving parent is unfit or unwilling to care for the child. Moreover, a grandparent can only intervene to obtain custody of a child during a termination of parental rights case, custody matter, or divorce. A child's best interests are always central to any custody decision.

In one Rhode Island case, a judge denied a custody request made by paternal grandparents, even though the child's father was unfit. The child's mother voluntarily terminated her parental rights to an adoptive couple when the child was two (2) years old. The child's father had a history of sexual abuse, substance abuse and criminal mischief making him an unfit parent and his consent wasn't needed to complete the adoption. Ultimately, the grandparents' petition for visitation and custody was filed too late and they lacked standing to intervene in the adoption.

Grandparents aren't entitled to custody of a grandchild just because they have biological ties or could do a better job of parenting than the child's parents. A judge will look at the totality of circumstances and the child's emotional and physical needs when evaluating custody. In any case, a grandparent's rights will always come in second place to a parent's rights.

Can a grandparent obtain visitation after a grandchild is placed for adoption?

Adoption permanently severs ties between biological grandparents and their grandchildren. Rhode Island laws governing adoption are very strict, and a grandparent can't request visitation with (or custody of) an adopted grandchild, even if the adoption was by a stepparent.

For example, in one Rhode Island case, a paternal grandfather was denied visitation with his grandchild, after the child was placed for adoption. The child's father made no objection to the child's adoption by a stepfather. The paternal grandfather's attempts to intervene and stop the adoption were unsuccessful because he lacked standing. A grandparent's legal rights to visitation are premised on a natural parent's rights. When a parent voluntarily gives up his or her parental rights, a grandparent's visitation privileges are likewise terminated.

A grandparent's rights to visitation with a grandchild are secondary to a parent's rights. Unfortunately, some parents take this power to the extreme by preventing or severely limiting a child's time with their grandparents. Under certain circumstances, an involved grandparent has legal recourse to obtain visitation with, or sometimes even custody of, a grandchild. If you have additional questions about obtaining grandparent visitation with a grandchild in Rhode Island, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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