Grandparents Granted Visitation Approved by New York’s Highest Court

The Court of Appeals in Matter of E.S. v P.D., unanimously upheld a constitutional challenge to New York’s grandparent visitation law.    

In upholding the New York Law which permits grandparents, under certain circumstances, to seek visitation with their grandchildren, the Court distinguished the New York law from the overly broad Washington law struck down by the United States Supreme Court in Troxel v Granville (530 US 57 [2000]).

The statute invalidated in Troxel permitted "'[a]ny person' to petition for visitation rights 'at any time,' and authorize[d] that court to grant such visitation rights whenever 'visitation may serve the best interest of the child'" (Troxel, 530 US at 60 [quoting Wash Rev Code § 26.10.160(3) (1994)]). The Washington statute explicitly applied a presumption in favor of grandparent visitation, placing on the parent "the burden of disproving that visitation would be in the best interest" of her children.

The New York Statute, on the other hand, presumes that the parent’s wishes represent the best interests of the children.  The Court noted that:

. . . courts should not lightly intrude on the family relationship against a fit parent's wishes. The presumption that a fit parent's decisions are in the child's best interests is a strong one. And while, as we made clear in Wilson, the problems created by parent-grandparent antagonism cannot be ignored, an acrimonious relationship is generally not sufficient cause to deny visitation. "It is almost too obvious to state that, in cases where grandparents must use legal procedures to obtain visitation rights, some degree of animosity exists between them and the party having custody of the child or children. Were it otherwise, visitation could be achieved by agreement" (Lo Presti v Lo Presti, 40 NY2d 522, 526 [1976]).

While this presumption creates a high hurdle, the grandmother in this case surmounted it: from the time the child was almost four until he was seven, grandmother was his surrogate, live-in mother. The court then properly went on to consider all of the many circumstances bearing upon whether it was in the child's best interest for his relationship with grandmother to continue — e.g., the reasonableness of father's objections to grandmother's access to the child, her caregiving skills and attitude toward father, the law guardian's assessment, the child's wishes — before making a judgment granting visitation.

Section 72(1) of the Domestic Relations Law states that

"[w]here either or both of the parents of a minor child, residing within this state, is, or are deceased, or where circumstances show that conditions exist which equity would see fit to intervene, a grandparent may apply to [supreme or family court] and . . . the court, by order after due notice to the parent or any other person or party having the care, custody, and control of such child, to be given in such manner as the court shall prescribe, may make such directions as the best interest of the child may require, for visitation rights for such grandparent or grandparents in respect to such child."

Section 72(1) "does not create an absolute or automatic right of visitation. Instead, the statute provides a procedural mechanism for grandparents to acquire standing to seek [*5]visitation with a minor grandchild" (Matter of Wilson v McGlinchey, 2 NY3d 375, 380 [2004] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]). When grandparents seek visitation under section 72(1), the court must undertake a two-part inquiry. "First, [the court] must find standing based on death or equitable circumstances"; and "[i]f [the court] concludes that the grandparents have established the right to be heard, then it must determine if visitation is in the best interest of the grandchild" (Matter of Emanuel S., 78 NY2d at 181

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