Grandparent Visitation Rights In Tennessee: Does Blood Relation Matter?

Our family never shared the same last name
But our family was a family the same
(And they say) Blood is thicker than water
Oh, but love is thicker than blood

~ Thicker Than Blood by Garth Brooks ~

In my last post, I told you about T.C.A. § 36-6-306, which sets forth — that’s “lawyer speak” for describes — the circumstances in which Tennessee courts can grant grandparent visitation rights.  I promised to follow up with a post about a Williamson County case that dealt with this subject.  Without doubt, many of you have been losing sleep in anticipation, so here it is!

Who Qualifies as a Grandparent?
As discussed in the last post, the statute defines “grandparent” so as to include, but not be limited to, a biological grandparent, the spouse of a biological grandparent and a parent of an adoptive parent.  The Williamson County case we are about to discuss raised a number of thorny issues, but one of them concerned the scope of who qualifies as a grandparent.

The case involved a 10 year-old girl who was born to parents who divorced when she was two.  (We’ll call the parents “Father” and “Mother.”)   After the divorce, Mother was the primary custodial parent for the child.  Father, who had drug problems during the marriage, was awarded supervised visitation.

About a year later, Mother remarried to a man whom we’ll call “Mother’s New Husband.”  After a family falling out over an attempt by Mother’s New Husband to adopt the child while Father was incarcerated, Mother cut the child off from contact with the paternal grandmother (who had actually adopted Father when he was a boy) and her husband.  (We’ll call them “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”  With me so far?  Good!)

The Grandparent Visitation Dispute
A few months later, Grandma and Grandpa filed a petition for grandparent visitation. They alleged — that’s “lawyer speak” for claimed — that they had been an integral part of the child’s life from the time of her birth, keeping her at least two days a week, providing financial support, participating in her activities and forming a close bond with her.

A complicated visitation arrangement was agreed to in court by Mother, Grandma and Grandpa.  The peace would not last.

Mother’s New Husband eventually succeeded in adopting the child.  However, the order of adoption specifically preserved Grandma and Grandpa’s visitation rights. (Remember: Grandma was the adoptive mother of Father, whose parental rights were cut off by the adoption.)

After the adoption, relations between Mother and Mother’s New Husband, on the one hand, and Grandma and Grandpa, on the other, became “strained”  (the court’s term).  Grandma and Grandpa filed a petition for contempt against Mother for interfering with their visitation rights.  In response, Mother and Mother’s New Husband filed a petition to terminate Grandma and Grandpa’s visitation rights.  They alleged that Grandma was “short tempered” and that the visitation was not in the child’s best interests.

The Court Awards Grandparent Visitation Rights
After a lot of litigation — that’s “lawyer speak” for carrying on in court –, the trial court found Mother in contempt, and awarded Grandma and Grandpa their attorney’s fees in the amount of $32,000 (yes, this stuff can get very expensive).  The trial court declined to terminate Grandma and Grandpa’s visitation rights, but found that some changes should be made to the visitation schedule in light of the parties’ “inability” to get along (an understatement).

Both sides appealed. Lots of issues were raised, but the Tennessee Court of Appeals found that it first  had to decide the threshold question whether Grandma and Grandpa actually qualified as “grandparents” under the “Grandparent Visitation Statute.”  The Court of Appeals held that, since “Grandma” had adopted “Father,” she was a grandparent under the statute (even though ‘Father” was no longer  a parent by reason of the child’s adoption by Mother’s New Husband).  It also held that “Grandpa,” having married ‘Grandma,” also qualified as a grandparent.  (Bear in mind that neither ‘Grandma” nor “Grandpa” was a blood relative of the child.)

Importantly, the Court of Appeals went on to state:

Although we conclude that [Grandma and Grandpa] are grandparents under the express language of the statute, we note that [they] arguably need not meet any of the express definitions of grandparent to have standing under the Grandparent Visitation Statute.  The statute specifically states that the definition of grandparent ‘includes, but is not limited to’ the three enumerated definitions..

The Court of Appeals stated that the definition did not exclude other grandparent relationships. In fact, the close relationship between Grandma and Grandpa with the child was considered. It went on to hold:

Taking an expansive view of the definition of grandparent in the statute, both [Grandma and Grandpa} should be considered grandparents….  First, because an adoptive parent has the same rights as a biological parent, an adoptive grandparent like {Grandma] should also have standing.  In addition, the record shows that {Grandpa] and {Grandma] have enjoyed a close and supportive relationship with the child since her birth.  The child knows [them] as her grandparents, and they have acted as grandparents in their care, support and love for this child. … Consequently, we conclude that the trial court properly exercised its jurisdiction in treating {Grandma and Grandpa} as grandparents.

Bottom line:  For those who are not blood relatives of their “grandchild,” this decision should provide considerable hope that your case will hold water in court (please excuse the cheesy metaphor).

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