Spending time with grandchildren is an activity most grandparents take for granted. But in Washington State, a ruling this month by the state Supreme Court strikes down a visitation law, leaving grandparents there with no legal recourse when the children's parents deny them access to their grandchildren.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that parents have a right to raise their children according to their own wishes, without state interference.
Grandparent visitation laws date back to the 1970s. At that time state legislatures began passing statutes to protect grandparents' rights to see their grandchildren when families are split by divorce, the death of a parent, or acrimony.
The laws, which vary from state to state, allow grandparents to ask a court for the right to continue their relationship with grandchildren.
But in 2000, a narrowly drawn US Supreme Court ruling put parents' wishes ahead of grandparents' requests in resolving visitation disputes. Since then, many state legislatures have had to rewrite grandparent visitation laws if they run contrary to the rights of the parents.
The revised laws shift the burden of proof from the parent to the grandparent, legal experts say. Under the old laws, parents had to prove that a grandparent should not get visitation rights. The new laws require grandparents to prove that grandparents' visits benefit the emotional, mental, or physical health of the child. They must show that a lack of visitation harms the child. Visits must be "in the best interest of the child."
In most states, grandparents cannot petition for visitation if the children's parents are still married or together. Parents in these intact families have the final say on whether grandparents can have contact with children.
In addition to Washington, only two other states - Alabama and Florida - currently do not offer visitation rights for grandparents, according to Richard Victor, national director of the Grandparents Rights Organization in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Last August a divided California Supreme Court upheld a state law allowing grandparents to seek visitation rights if parents are divorced or were never married. If the custodial parent opposes visitation, a grandparent must prove that visits would be in the child's best interest.
In Michigan, a law signed in January expands grandparent visitation rights to include children born out of wedlock. It also extends to grandparents who have cared for a child for a year or more. But if both parents sign an affidavit opposing a grandparent's visitation request, the court will dismiss that request.
The US Supreme Court ruling in 2000, Troxel v. Granville, gave priority to parents' wishes. In that case, Jenifer and Gary Troxel, of Washington State, began losing contact with two of their granddaughters after their son, the girls' father, committed suicide. The girls' mother limited the time the couple could spend with their granddaughters.
But the Troxels lost the case when the high court ruled that the state's visitation laws were too broad.
The Washington State ruling this month involves a case brought by Christian Appel, the father of a 12-year-old daughter. He and the girl's mother parted after she was born, and he and the baby lived with his parents in Germany.
In 1997 Mr. Appel moved back to Washington, and three years later his daughter went to live with him and his new wife. When his mother petitioned for visitation rights, the court ruled that she has no right to court-ordered visits.
It termed the state law unconstitutional because it presumes that visits with a grandparent are in a child's best interest, even if a parent opposes the visits.
In families split by feuds, legal experts recommend counseling and the services of professional mediators as the first step in trying to heal rifts and reestablish relationships. Court, they say, should be the last resort.