The majority of our state’s custody and visitation laws are designed to address possible custody disputes between parents.
This doesn’t mean that our legislature and courts don’t recognize the huge role that many grandparents play in the lives of their grandchildren, but grandparents aren’t automatically given the blanket legal rights of custody or visitation like parents are. Instead, grandparents can, under certain circumstances, petition the court for custody or mandated visitation.
Limitations on bringing an action
There is a difference between a grandparent seeking custody and a grandparent seeking visitation. The biggest limiting factor to grandparent visitation actions, and one that is fairly unique in our state, is that visitation actions must be filed in conjunction with a custody action, and the child’s family must not be an intact family. Grandparents don’t have the legal right to independently file a visitation claim.
Furthermore, only grandparents with standing can bring an action for visitation, which means they must have a substantial relationship with the child. Generally, unless a child has been adopted outside the family, grandparents will have standing. North Carolina statutes don’t actually define what it means to have a substantial relationship, but the courts can consider different factors, including:
- Frequent visits
- Overnight stays or vacations with the grandparents
- Grandparents providing regular child care
- Cohabitation with the grandparent for short or long periods of time
- Grandparents providing for the child’s necessities (school clothes, supplies, dental or medical expenses, sports equipment, religious observation)
- Participation in the child’s social or recreational activities (taking the child to soccer practice or attending games, for example)
It is more difficult for grandparents to file an action for custody. When a grandparent initiates a custody proceeding, the grandparent must show that the parent is unfit or has taken action inconsistent with her parental status in order to gain custody of the child.
In cases where a child is adopted outside the biological family, however, all legal ties are considered severed between the biological family and the child; this includes the grandparents, even if they opposed the adoption.
For more information about grandparent rights in our state, you can read the relevant statutes, North Carolina General Statutes Section 50-13.1 and North Carolina General Statutes Section 50-13.2. For guidance when considering filing a grandparent visitation or custody claim of your own, seek the advice of an experienced local family law attorney.