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Can Grandparents Be Awarded Virtual Visitation?


Father and young son looking at laptop computer together
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Question: Can Grandparents Be Awarded Virtual Visitation?
Some noncustodial parents are being awarded virtual visitation, entitling them to video chats with their children. Grandparents may wonder how virtual visitation figures in grandparent visitation rights.

At this time, virtual visitation--sometimes called visual visitation, e-visitation or electronic communication--can be included in court actions for grandparents seeking visitation rights. As a rule, visual visitation is not considered separately from other visitation rights.

The term virtual visitation began to appear in legal journals around 2002. Virtual visitation allows non-custodial parents to keep in touch with children when distance or other issues keep them from visiting face-to-face. It has also been implemented in some prisons to allow prisoners to stay in contact with their families.

Most virtual visitation is carried out via computer and webcam, using programs such as Skype. The FaceTime app, available on iPhone, iPad and iPod, allows mobile video calling and is contributing to the growth in virtual visitation, according to Richard S. Victor, a Michigan lawyer who is the founder of Grandparents Rights Organization.

Grandparents who are in the process of formalizing their visitation rights through the court system and who desire virtual visitation should be sure that it is specified in the negotiations. At least six states have formalized virtual visitation in law, but no states have formalized virtual visitation for grandparents. In states with virtual visitation provisions for parents, grandparents may have an increased chance of winning similar privileges, according to Mark Spencer Williams of Rice Law in North Carolina, one of the states with laws about virtual visitation. "Since Skype has been addressed in our custody/visitation statutes, a grandparent with proper standing could get court ordered visitation via phone and/or Skype or a similar communication method," Williams said. Williams notes that under North Carolina law, only a grandparent who is a party to an ongoing custody case has standing, unless a case can be made that a parent is unfit.

State statutes addressing virtual visitation are not required for winning such rights, though, according to Shirley Berens of the Grandparents Resource Center. Berens is a legal consultant in Colorado, which has no virtual visitation statute, but she says that if grandparents request it, virtual visitation "would be talked about in court between the parties and would, if agreed upon, be put in the order."

Authorities on family law warn that virtual visitation is not a substitute for visiting in person. That is as true for grandparents as it is for other family members. For long-distance grandparents or those in bad health, however, virtual visitation can be a valuable tool.

Learn more about visitation laws in specific states and how to determine which state has jurisdiction.

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