A Tennessee Supreme Court ruling today clarifies that parents and grandparents must satisfy the same legal standards in disputes over modifications to existing court-ordered grandparent visitation.
In the Court’s unanimous Opinion, a parent or grandparent asking a court to modify or terminate court-ordered grandparent visitation must prove that a material change in circumstances has occurred and that a modification or termination of grandparent visitation is in the child’s best interests.
The Court reaffirmed earlier decisions that said parents are presumed to have superior parental rights in initial legal proceedings to determine grandparent visitation. The Court also reiterated that, to overcome this presumption and obtain visitation, a grandparent must prove: (1) that parents oppose grandparent visitation; (2) that a child will suffer substantial harm if grandparent visitation is denied; and (3) that grandparent visitation is in a child’s best interest.
Today’s Opinion goes on to say that, while parents are afforded the opportunity in an initial proceeding to rely upon the presumption of superior parental rights, the principle does not continue to apply in later proceedings to modify or terminate that grandparent visitation.
In the case before the Court, the grandparents received visitation through a court order that both parties agreed to. Not long after the order was filed with the court, the grandparents’ relationship with the child’s parents deteriorated. The grandparents asked the trial court to modify the visitation arrangement agreed to in court and grant them more time with the child.
The parents, in response, asked the trial court to end all grandparent visitation. The trial court declined to terminate grandparent visitation but also declined to increase significantly the grandparents’ visitation with the child. The trial court found that the decline in the parties’ relationship amounted to a material change in circumstances and that the best interests of the child required minor modifications of the previously agreed to visitation schedule.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s judgment, concluding that the trial court should have taken into account the superior parental rights when considering the grandparents’ request to modify court-ordered visitation. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, concluded that the trial court applied the correct standard, and reinstated the trial court’s judgment modifying the grandparent visitation arrangement.
The Supreme Court did not agree with portions of the trial court’s judgment finding the mother in contempt of the initial order for grandparent visitation and requiring her to pay a portion of the grandparents’ attorneys’ fees. The Court cautioned that its decision should “in no way be understood as condoning the acrimonious and uncooperative relationship that has existed between” the parents and grandparents and urged them “to refocus on how best to foster the welfare of the child . . . and allow this goal to guide their future interactions with each other.”