Tennessee is a state in which individual rights -- and parental rights -- are well-protected. Thus, Tennessee's statutes regarding grandparent visitation are lengthy and complex. Determining whether visitation should be granted is a multi-step process.
The first step is looking at the child's family situation. In Tennessee, any of the following circumstances necessitates a hearing if visitation is requested by a grandparent and opposed by the custodial parent:
- The father or mother is deceased
- The child's father and mother are divorced, legally separated, or were never married to each other
- A parent of the child has been missing for at least six months
- The child resided in the home of the grandparent for twelve months or more and was subsequently removed from the home by the parent, establishing a rebuttable presumption that denial of visitation may result in irreparable harm to the child
- There has been a "significant existing relationship" for at least twelve months between the grandparent and grandchild. This relationship was terminated by the parent, not for reason of abuse or endangerment, with this severance being likely to cause "substantial emotional harm" to the child.
The second step is determining whether cessation of the grandparent-grandchild relationship might cause "substantial harm" to the child. Three qualifying circumstances are listed:
- The "significant existing relationship" with the grandparent was such that cessation would cause "severe emotional harm" to the child.
- The grandparent functioned as a primary caregiver, so that interruption of the relationship could cause the child's daily needs not to be met.
- Loss of a "significant existing relationship" with the grandparent could cause other "direct and substantial harm."
The third step is determining whether a grandparent-grandchild relationship qualifies as a "significant existing relationship." Grandparents can clear this hurdle if the child resided with the grandparent for at least six months, if the grandparent was a full-time caretaker for at least six months or if the grandparent had frequent visitation with the child for at least one year.
The final step is deciding whether visitation is in the best interest of the child. Tennessee law lists 11 determiners:
- The length and quality of the grandparent-grandchild relationship
- Existing emotional ties
- The preference of the child, when applicable
- Any hostility between parents and grandparents, and the grandparent's willingness to promote the parent-child relationship
- The grandparent's "good faith," meaning that he or she has a sincere desire for visitation and is not acting out of malice
- Any time-sharing arrangement between divorced or separated parents
- A grandparent's status as parent of a deceased parent
- An "unreasonable" denial of visitation for at least 90 days
- The grandparent's desire to maintain a "significant existing relationship"
- Any disruption of the parent-child relationship that would result from visitation
- Any finding of parental unfitness
The law does have a few bright spots for grandparents. The grandparents are not expected to present expert witnesses. Instead, the court's decision about a "significant existing relationship" will be based upon whether a "reasonable person" would agree. The same standard will be used determine whether loss of the relationship is likely to occasion "severe emotional harm" to the child.
The term grandparent includes biological grandparents and their spouses and the parents of adoptive parents. If a person other than a relative or a stepparent adopts a child, any visitation rights granted will automatically end.
Considering the complexity of the laws in Tennessee, grandparents who foresee family difficulties should take steps to safeguard their grandparents rights by carefully documenting their relationship with their grandchildren.
See Tennessee Code 36-6-306 and 36-6-307.
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