Grandparent rights can be complicated, recent cases show

For grandparents fighting for the right to see their grandkids, a couple of cases out of Virginia suggest that it may be easier to hold onto visitation rights that a court has already granted then to go to court and secure them in the first place.

Take the case of Ohio couple Delmar and Susan Lang. Their son died a year after he and their daughter-in-law Melanie got divorced. The Langs’ relationship with Melanie soon fell apart and she tried to keep them from seeing their four grandchildren.

The Langs went to court and a Ohio judge granted them visitation. But Melanie moved to Virginia, where she registered the Ohio order and asked a Virginia court to modify it and strip the Langs of visitation rights.

A judge denied her request and the Virginia Court of Appeals affirmed, rejecting Melanie’s argument that the Langs had to show that approving her request would cause “actual harm” to the children. Instead, the court ruled that because the Langs had already won visitation rights in Ohio, the court only had to find that visitation was in the “best interests of the children.” The court also said that a ruling in Melanie’s favor would encourage parents to relocate whenever wanted they to undo a custody ruling in their own state.

Compare this to the case where a Virginia grandmother’s daughter tried to keep her from seeing her grandson. The grandmother, who had lived with the boy for the first three years of his life and had a strong relationship with him, went to court to seek a visitation order, arguing that it was in the best interests of the child. She lost. According to the court, while contact with the grandmother may well have been in the boy’s best interest, the mother had the right to say no unless the grandmother could prove that the denial would cause “actual harm” to the child.

What’s the difference between the cases? Ohio might simply be more generous in extending visitation rights to grandparents. But it also may just be tougher for grandparents to gain visitation rights that they didn’t previously have than to keep visitation rights that a court has already awarded.

Of course, the law can differ from state to state, so talk to a lawyer where you live.