New Supreme Court Case Clarifies Grandparent Visitation Rights

Divorces impact more than just the husband and wife.

Parents, grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, friends and neighbors all feel a divorce’s impact.

This is especially true in divorces involving young children.

There, unfortunately, grandparents and stepparents may suddenly find themselves cut off from children with whom they shared a close relationship before the divorce.

Carol Meister found herself in just such a situation after her son Jay’s divorce from his wife Nancy.

In the divorce, Nancy received primary physical placement of their four children.

Grandmother Carol found herself unable to see the children as much as she had previously, and petitioned the Jefferson County court for placement under Wis. Stat. § 767.43(1), which states:

“(U)pon petition by a grandparent, greatgrandparent, stepparent or person who has maintained a relationship similar to a parent-child relationship with the child, the court may grant reasonable visitation rights to that person if the parents have notice of the hearing and if the court determines that visitation is in the best interest of the child.”

In Carol’s case, S.A.M. v. Meister, the Wisconsin Supreme Court recently critically clarified the nature of grandparents’ and stepparents’ burdens in seeking visitation.

The Supreme Court analyzed the language quoted above and concluded that grandparents, greatgrandparents and stepparents do not have to prove a “parent-child relationship” with the child.

Only someone other than these relations (an “other person”) seeking placement must prove that “relationship.” 2016 WI 22.

The Supreme Court focused in part on the nature of the relationship of a child with his or her grandparents, greatgrandparents and stepparents.

Grandparents and greatgrandparents, for example, are related to a child’s parent; stepparents were once married to a child’s parent.

However, a “person” under the statute:

“is undefined, so that is hard to anticipate the nature of the relationship that the ‘person’ has to the child. The ‘person’ could be a sister or brother, but it could also be an aunt or uncle, cousin, former foster parent, neighbor or friend.” Id.

Justice Prosser, writing the majority decision, concluded:

“(W)hile our decision eliminates one unintended impediment for grandparents, greatgrandparents, and stepparents who seek visitation rights…it does not guarantee that they will prevail.” Id.

Visitation cases have always been fact-intensive, hinging on the determination whether a non-parent’s visitation is in the child’s best interests.

If you have questions about grandparent or stepparent visitation, contact Fox, O’Neill & Shannon, S.C.