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Do grandparents have visitation rights?

North Carolina's child custody laws, like other states, provide some limited visitation rights to grandparents. This state has additional obstacles, however.

Grandparents must have standing or the legal status to file a visitation petition. Biological grandparents have standing unless the children were adopted. However, they possess standing if the adopting parent is a blood relative or a stepparent and the grandparents have a substantial relationship with the children. Although the law does not define a substantial relationship, it usually exists if the child lived with their grandparents for a significant time. Visits, overnight stays and participation in the children's activities are also given positive consideration.

The court may order grandparent visitation that it considers appropriate. However, state law provides additional complications.

First, grandparents cannot file an independent visitation petition. A court will consider this petition only when it is filed with the child custody case.

Grandparents may file this action in the original custody proceeding to preserve their rights even when they are not being denied contact. If another custody proceeding is later instituted, the grandparents may seek visitation rights in that action.

Next, North Carolina courts follow a broader definition of an intact family than other states which recognize an intact family if the parents are married or living together. North Carolina's law poses obstacles because it is more difficult to receive visitation with a child living in an intact family.

For example, a child's paternal grandparents may visit their grandchildren when their parents are divorced. When the father dies, the grandparents could lose visitation rights and have no legal remedy because the parent who survives is now the intact family. For this reason, grandparents may want to seek visitation rights in the initial custody proceeding even if it is not an issue for them at the time because they are still having contact through their biological child.

The intact family definition was decided by a court and is not defined by law. A court made this definition in a case where a mother had two children with different fathers and was not married to either of them. It found that there was an intact family when the two children lived with her.

"Visitation" can include more than just face to face contact, and could include phone contact, FaceTime, e-mail or Skype. This option may help a long-distance grandparent who wishes to maintain contact with grandchildren but is not present in the same geographical area.

An experienced attorney can assist grandparents seeking visitation and custody rights. They can help present options that overcome legal obstacles.

Source: The Spruce, "North Carolina grandparents' rights," Accessed June 27, 2017

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