Michelle Parker, the mother of two young children, suddenly disappeared after she appeared on an episode of “The People’s Court” with her ex-fiancé, who was also the father of her children. Parker was reported missing sometime after dropping the children off at her ex-fiancé’s house in 2013. Her body has not been discovered and the criminal case relating to her disappearance was dismissed in 2014. Parker’s parents have not been allowed to see their grandchildren, as the ex-fiancé refuses to allow them visitation.
Previously, grandparents’ rights were difficult and complicated to establish in Florida, with courts only allowing grandparents to sue for visitation if the parents had divorced, a parent had deserted the child, or the child was born out of wedlock. As of July 1st, 2015, however, grandparents will be allowed to petition for visitation in additional circumstances, including the case of Michelle Parker’s parents.
What Are the Additional Circumstances?
According to the new law, grandparents can petition for visitation of a minor child where both parents or one of the parents is (1) deceased, (2) missing, (3) in a persistent vegetative state, or (4) has been convicted of a felony or an offense of violence showing behavior that poses a substantial threat of harm to the minor child’s health or welfare.
What is the Process?
The grandparents must petition the court for visitation rights and meet the criteria laid out under the law. In cases like Michelle Parker–where a parent is not alive or missing– the court would weigh various factors in determining whether to award visitation. In order for grandparents to qualify, the court would consider the grandparents’ previous relationship with the child and the mental, physical and emotional health of both the child and the grandparents. The reason why the grandparents were denied visitation would have to be considered as well.
In situations where a parent is not deceased, missing, or impaired, the court will hold a preliminary hearing to determine whether there exists a “prima facie showing” of parental unfitness or significant harm to the child. Essentially, the court is looking for enough information to establish a fact or raise a presumption that a parent is unfit or poses significant harm to the child. If the grandparent fails to make this preliminary showing, the court shall dismiss the petition and may award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to be paid by the grandparents to the respondent.
However, if the grandparents do establish enough evidence to meet the initial burden, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem and refer the matter to mediation. Should mediation prove unsuccessful, the matter will proceed to a final hearing.
If at the final hearing the court finds, by clear and convincing evidence (1) a parent is either unfit or poses significant harm to the child (or is deceased or missing), (2) visitation is in the best interest of the child, and (3) the visitation will not materially harm the parent-child relationship, the court may award reasonable visitation to the grandparent.
When considering what qualifies as the “best interest of the child” the court will look to the emotional well being of the child, the length and quality of the previous relationship between the child and grandparent, the reasons the parent initially refused visitation, any emotional harm caused by the disruption of the family unit, and other relevant circumstances. All of these and other relevant factors will be taken into consideration when determining if visitation is in the child’s best interest.
How Do I Proceed?
If you are considering filing for visitation as a grandparent, you are the respondent in a grandparent visitation suit, or you have questions on how the new law affects your case, contact the Tampa family and divorce lawyers at All Family Law Group, P.A. in Tampa Bay at 813-816-2232 for a consultation at no charge or email us.
By Lynette Silon-Laguna Google+