Do Grandparents Have Visitation Rights in Tennessee?

A brief overview of grandparent visitation privileges in Tennessee.

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School
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Many parents welcome the help and assistance of a grandparent. A parent's divorce or separation may change the family dynamic, as well as a grandparent's involvement in a grandchild's life. When a parent limits or cuts off a child's contact with a grandparent, it can come as a shock.

If you're a grandparent seeking additional visitation with a grandchild, it's important to understand the rules regarding grandparent visitation in your state. Every state recognizes some form of grandparent visitation privileges, but there are differences. This article provides an overview of grandparent visitation in Tennessee. If you have questions after reading this article, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Grandparent Visitation Laws

The U.S. Constitution protects parents' rights to make parenting decisions on a child's behalf. When grandparents and parents are at odds, a parent's wishes will usually win. However, grandparents have legal recourse to seek grandparent visitation if they can show it's in a child's best interests and that a denial of visitation will result in actual harm to the child.

There is no federal law governing grandparent visitation rights. The closest thing our country has to a federal grandparent visit law is the ruling that came out of the Troxel v. Granville case. In Troxel, the U.S. Supreme Courtclarified that a judge must consider a parent's reasons for opposing grandparent visitation. Additionally, grandparent visits shouldn't interfere with the parent-child relationship. While grandparents have certain rights, those rights shouldn't be allowed to negatively impact parental rights. Most states have crafted grandparent visitation laws that closely follow the ruling set forth in Troxel. However, there are some differences in grandparent visitation laws from state to state.

Grandparent Visitation in Tennessee

Grandparent visitation rights aren't an issue unless a child's parent objects. Even then, certain circumstances must exist for a court to consider a grandparent's visitation request. Specifically, one or more of the following factors is required:

  • the child's parent is deceased
  • the child's parents are divorced, separated, or were never legally married
  • the child's parent has been missing for at least six months
  • a court in another state has ordered grandparent visitation
  • the child lived in the grandparent's home for at least 12 months and was removed from the home by the parents, or
  • the child and grandparent have maintained a significant bond for at least 12 months and severing the grandparent-grandchild relationship will harm the child.

To obtain visitation with a grandchild, a grandparent bears the burden of proving that at least one of the above factors is present. In meeting the final factor of "harm," it's not enough for a grandparent to show that a child will miss their relationship with the grandparent. To prove actual harm, a grandparent must demonstrate:

  • the child had a such a significant relationship with the grandparent that he or she will suffer severe emotional harm if the relationship ends
  • the grandparent acted as a primary caregiver to the child for at least six months, and the child will suffer a severe emotional loss, or
  • the child's loss of a relationship with the grandparent puts the child in danger or risk of substantial harm.

For example, in one Tennessee case, the court awarded grandparents substantial visitation because of the strong bond between the grandparents and grandchild. In this case, the grandparents had a long-term relationship with their grandchild, and the child's stepparent was trying to sever ties with the grandparents. The court ordered visitation because the grandparent-grandchild relationship was so significant that the child would be harmed if the relationship ended. Yet, the court made sure the visitation schedule gave the child needed time with grandparents while interfering as little as possible with the parent-child relationship.

In another Tennessee case, the court denied a set of paternal grandparents' request for visitation. The grandparents visited with their grandson weekly during his first two years of life. However, when the child's father (and grandparents' son) died, the child's mother immediately cut off grandparent visits. The court deferred to the mother's parenting decision to prevent grandparent visitation because the grandparents couldn't show that the child would be emotionally traumatized by the lack of time with his grandparents. What this case demonstrates is that grandparents' rights will always come in second place to a parent's.

When Can a Grandparent Obtain Custody of a Grandchild?

A grandparent can seek custody of a grandchild under the same circumstances that a grandparent can seek visitation. Specifically, a grandparent can file a petition for custody when:

  • the child's parents have divorced
  • the child's parents are deceased
  • the child has been abandoned by the parents, or
  • the child has been abused or neglected.

However, a grandparent can't obtain custody unless the child's parents are unfit or unable to care for the child. A judge will assess the child's best interests, the grandparent's ability to meet the child's needs, and factors demonstrating parental unfitness.

In one Tennessee case, a higher court reversed the lower court's decision to award custody to a set of maternal grandparents. The child's father sought custody of the children, and the grandparents likewise wanted custody of their grandchildren. Although the father was behind on his child support payments, he was still a fit and stable parent and entitled to custody of his children. Because the children's father could meet their needs, he was awarded custody over the grandparents.

Can a Biological Grandparent Obtain Visitation After A Child is Placed for Adoption?

Adoption terminates any legal ties between a child and his or her biological parents or grandparents. Some exceptions apply in cases of adoption by a stepparent or a blood relative. For example, under Tennessee's Grandparent Visitation Statute, if a stepparent adopts a child, biological grandparents may still be entitled to visitation.

A grandparent can make a significant impact in the life of a grandchild. Too often, when parents divorce or one parent dies, grandparent visitation is cut short or cut off altogether. In Tennessee, grandparents have legal standing to pursue visitation with a grandchild under certain circumstances. A child's best interests will determine the scope and frequency of grandparent visitation. If you have additional questions about grandparent visitation or custody rights in Tennessee, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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