Welcoming a child into the world is exciting for the whole family – including the extended family. The parents’ siblings get excited to be aunts or uncles, and their parents are excited to be grandparents.
In many cases, children have special connections with extended family members. However, what happens to these relationships if parents decide to separate and divorce? What do divorced parents have to consider when it comes to the extended family?
Generally, maintaining family relationships is beneficial
After a divorce, it is often considered in the child’s best interests to maintain their relationships with their extended family members, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins if they play a role in the child’s life.
This is true unless there is a valid reason a child should not see an extended family member. For example, it may not be in the child’s interest to visit a family member if that individual is a sex offender, has a history of violent crime, or is presently in active addiction. In these cases, a parent’s decision to allow a child to visit with such family member or allow the family member to provide care for the child may show extremely poor judgment and reflect negatively on the parent’s parenting skills and abilities in any future custody proceeding.
More commonly, one parent may not like the other parent’s family, due to arguments that may have occurred during the marriage, or simply due to the acrimony of the divorce or custody proceeding. Parents should be aware that their dislike or disapproval of the other parent’s family is not sufficient to prevent the other parent from having the children around their family.
Do parents need to address extended family visits in the custody agreement?
North Carolina law does not require parents to address extended family visits in the parenting and custody agreement. Parents will only have to address this issue if they believe it is necessary. If one of the parents had a particularly contentious relationship with the other parent’s family during the marriage, then that parent may wish to include verbiage providing that their parents or family would be permitted to visit with the child in the event of their death. While this may make parties feel better, unless the family member is a party to the court order, there may be limited ways to enforce this. Further, if parents address such terms in a contract agreement, any potential remedies may not be effective, especially since the third party relative was not a party to the agreement. While it may seem harsh, absent a family member being an intervenor in a custody case who has designated rights and visitation privileges in a court order, “feel-good” language that parents will allow visits with family members in the event the other parent predeceases them may be vague and unenforceable.
In situations where there are no grounds for a family member to intervene and be granted some type of defined, independent visitation, it is often helpful for parents to consider:
- How parents can build in flexibility to their custody order or agreement to allow children to attend important events that involve extended family members, including family reunions, weddings, and funerals;
- Whether there are any specific restrictions that need to be addressed in a custody order or agreement with respect to extended family members who may pose a risk of harm to the child or who otherwise would not be a suitable caregiver; and
- How both parents can help children foster positive relationships with extended family members, which may be addressed through the use of non-disparagement clauses and in cases where a family member is involved in providing child care, transportation, or shelter for the parent/child, providing guidelines regarding how day to day communications should occur.
Even if parents do not address extended family visits or roles in their custody agreement, they should still communicate with their co-parent about these issues to keep them in the loop.