Getting grandparent rights, also known as visitation rights, allows grandparents to ask the court for time with their grandchildren. This can be helpful when the parent is restricting access to the grandchild. However, getting these rights takes time and money. Here is an overview of the typical costs associated with getting grandparent visitation rights.
The biggest expense for getting grandparent rights will likely be attorney fees. Hiring a family law attorney to handle the petition can cost anywhere from $200 to $500 per hour. The total fees can easily add up to thousands of dollars depending on:
- The complexity of the case – Cases involving abuse allegations or other complicating factors will take more attorney time. Simple cases may cost less.
- How contested it is – If the parents strongly fight the petition for visitation, there will be more back-and-forth and court appearances. This drives up legal fees.
- The experience of the attorney – Lawyers with decades of specific family law experience tend to charge higher hourly rates. New attorneys often start around $200 per hour.
On average, total attorney fees for getting grandparent rights fall between $5,000 to $20,000. However, highly complex and contested cases could exceed $20,000.
In addition to attorney fees, grandparents will need to pay various court costs including:
- Filing fees – This is what it costs to officially submit the petition. Fees are usually $100 to $500 depending on the state.
- Process serving fees – The petition and notices need proper service on the parents. Private process servers generally charge $50 to $100 per service.
- Copying/administrative fees – Courts charge per page copy fees and administrative fees for paperwork processing throughout the case. This adds up to $100+ typically.
Expert Witness Fees
If mental health evaluations are needed, or experts are used to strengthen the argument for visitation rights, their fees also need to be paid. Expert witness fees often range from $200 to $500 per hour. Even if insurance covers some costs, there is usually an out-of-pocket portion.
If the case involves travel to court or for visitation, gas, hotel, plane tickets, and meal costs need to be factored in. Cases involving long distances can rack up thousands in travel expenses over time.
Taking time off work to go to court hearings, meetings with attorneys, or travel can result in lost wages. Even paid time off equals money lost for some. Carefully tracking these hours helps determine the full financial impact.
Child Custody Evaluations
In some states, a full child custody evaluation is required before granting visitation rights. This involves professional analysis from a social worker or custody evaluator, and costs $2,000-$5,000 on average.
Before going to court, grandparents may be required to attempt mediation. Mediators often charge $200 or more per hour for their services split between both sides.
Appointed Guardian Ad Litem
If the court feels it’s needed to protect the child’s interests, a guardian ad litem may be appointed. This also has an associated cost paid by the grandparents seeking visitation.
If visitation rights are denied, grandparents can appeal. But filing appeals and going through the appellate process adds substantial legal fees.
Total Estimate of Costs
Given all these potential costs, getting grandparent visitation rights can easily cost between $10,000 to $40,000 on average. Complex cases with extensive litigation and appeals can exceed $50,000.
However, cost should not necessarily deter grandparents from pursuing visitation if it’s truly in the child’s best interest. There are ways to reduce expenses:
- Work with an attorney who charges affordable rates
- See if you qualify for free legal aid services
- Minimize contested litigation whenever possible
- Consider representing yourself pro se if cost is prohibitive
While expensive, the rewards of getting court-ordered time with grandchildren is often worth the investment for many grandparents.
Establishing Standing for Visitation Rights
To file for visitation rights, grandparents must establish legal standing. This means proving to the court that visitation is appropriate and in the child’s best interest.
There are several common ways grandparents can establish standing:
Death of a Parent
If one of the parents dies, like the child’s father, the paternal grandparents can request visitation. The surviving parent cannot unreasonably deny visitation if the grandparent had an established relationship.
Divorce of Parents
During divorce proceedings, grandparents can request visitation. This often occurs if they had frequent visits prior to the divorce being filed.
For grandchildren whose parents were never married, grandparents can file for visitation rights. This is common if the parents separate and the father’s family is denied access.
Parent Unfit or Incarcerated
If one or both parents are declared unfit, like due to substance abuse, or incarcerated, grandparents may be granted visitation while the parents are unable to care for the child.
Parents Voluntarily Allowed Visitation
If grandparents were voluntarily allowed regular visits for an extended time, like multiple years, severing that contact could be considered detrimental to the child. This can give grandparents standing to file for court-ordered visitation after it’s cut off.
Adoption by Step-parent
If a step-parent adopts the child, the grandparents can request visitation rights to remain involved in the child’s life. This applies primarily to the family of the parent who died or lost custody.
In nearly all cases, there needs to be an established, close grandparent-grandchild relationship for visitation rights to be considered in the child’s best interest.
The Visitation Petition Process
Once standing is determined, here is the typical petition process:
- Consult with a family law attorney to prepare the petition paperwork. Include background facts establishing standing.
- File the petition with the court along with the filing fee payment. Filing locations depend on the type of underlying case like divorce, adoption, etc.
- Serve the petition on the parents/guardians according to court rules. This generally involves a process server formally delivering copies.
- The parents can either respond and contest the petition or simply ignore it. Their lack of response usually means the grandparents win visitation rights by default.
- However, if contested, the court will schedule a hearing to evaluate the petition and hear arguments from all sides. Witnesses, evidence, counselor input, and more may be used.
- The judge issues a court order either granting visitation rights with a set schedule or denies the petition altogether.
- If visitation was granted, follow the court order terms exactly. Keep detailed records in case follow-up enforcement is needed.
- Any party can file petitions to modify the order later on if circumstances change substantially.
While getting grandparent rights involves time and money, grandparents can represent themselves pro se through the process to save on costs if needed. But having an attorney improves success rates.
Factors Courts Consider For Visitation
There are a number of factors judges consider when deciding grandparent visitation cases:
- The child’s best interests – Above all, the court considers the overall well-being and best interests of the grandchild. Maintaining family ties is usually seen as beneficial.
- The existing grandparent/grandchild bond – A close, loving existing bond weighs heavily in favor of granting visitation rights.
- The child’s preferences – If the child is old enough to express preferences, the judge will consider them. Teenagers’ wishes often hold more weight.
- Mental/physical health impacts – Denying visits may harm the child’s mental health. Allowing toxic grandparents access can create other issues. Experts may evaluate.
- Parents’ right to autonomy – Courts balance grandparent access versus the parents’ rights to raise their child without interference.
- Any history of abuse/neglect – If the grandparents have a history of perpetrating abuse or neglect, visitation is extremely unlikely.
- Reasons visitation was cut off – If the parent has legitimate reasons for denying access, like protecting the child, it reduces the grandparents’ chances of getting court-ordered visitation.
- Visitation schedule logistics – The proposed schedule is reviewed to ensure it is logistically reasonable for all parties involved.
Consulting with an attorney knowledgeable in local family law ensures addressing all these key factors in the petition. The better the case presented, the higher the odds of success.
Getting an Emergency Visitation Order
In certain circumstances, grandparents can get an emergency visitation order even while the main petition is still pending. This is most common if:
- The grandchild is suddenly denied any access without cause, negatively impacting their mental health and well-being.
- One parent dies suddenly and the surviving parent immediately cuts off contact with their family.
- The grandchild is in foster care and the grandparents want to immediately get visitation after months or years without seeing them.
- A parent plans to relocate the child far away across state lines, negatively impacting grandparent visitation.
- Other scenarios where the grandchild is undergoing major upheaval and losing contact with extended family would amplify the trauma.
The grandparent’s attorney must file for emergency visitation, including affidavits and evidence demonstrating the urgent need. If approved, an order goes into effect immediately while the full case proceeds.
Visitation Schedules and Modifying Orders
Typical grandparent visitation orders outline a specific schedule such as:
- Certain weekends per month or year
- Major holidays that rotate annually
- A portion of summer or winter school vacations
- Weekly dinners or other consistent blocks of time
If any party wants to substantially modify the order later on, they must go back to court and file a petition to review the changes. For example, if the grandparents move far away, the existing visitation schedule may no longer work.
Before unilaterally modifying the court-ordered visitation, grandparents should consult an attorney to adjust the schedule officially through approved legal procedures. Both parties usually need to consent to any major changes.
Enforcing Visitation Rights
If a parent violates the court order by denying grandparent visits, several enforcement options exist:
- Contempt charges – Grandparents can file a contempt motion against the parent for violating the order. This can result in fines or even jail time until compliance occurs.
- Make-up visitation – The court may order make-up visitation days to replace wrongfully denied ones.
- Mediation – Getting a mediator involved can help resolve compliance issues without going back to court.
- Custody change – Repeatedly denying court-ordered grandparent visits is grounds for changing primary custody to the other parent. But this is a last resort.
- Attorney fees – If grandparents have to file an enforcement action, the parent may have to pay their legal fees.
Ideally, setting very specific visitation schedules and expectations from the start minimizes any compliance issues down the road. But significant enforcement remedies are available if problems arise.
Choosing Alternatives Over Court Disputes
While going to court is sometimes necessary to get grandparent visitation rights, there are alternatives that can be attempted first:
- Mediation – A neutral mediator can often help parties compromise and agree on reasonable visitation, avoiding a court battle.
- Written agreement – Grandparents and parents can sign a mutually agreed upon written visitation agreement outlining terms, without needing a court order.
- Family therapy – Joint counseling can help improve relationships and communication between grandparents and parents to increase visitation.
- Voluntary trial period – Parents can allow a trial period of grandparent visits, like 3-6 months, and then reevaluate if it’s working for all.
- Adjust expectations – Grandparents may need to adjust expectations if parents only allow occasional visits or phone calls rather than a full schedule.
- Focus on the kids – Parents and grandparents should compromise with the childrens’ best interests in mind, not arguments over parental rights vs. grandparents rights.
In many situations, voluntary agreements reached through respectful communication serve families far better than contentious court disputes. But obtaining legal visitation rights should not be ruled out when reasonable efforts fail.
Questions Grandparents Should Consider
Before starting the battle for grandparent rights, honest self-reflection on these types of questions can help:
- Is pursuing court-ordered visits truly in my grandchildren’s overall best interests, or more about what I want?
- Am I willing to respect any terms the parents require to allow voluntary visits, even if very limited?
- Do I have the financial resources for a lengthy and expensive court process?
- Am I emotionally prepared if the judge ultimately denies my petition for visitation rights?
- Could pushing for visits do more harm than good by damaging the relationship with my grandchildren’s parents?
- Are there ways I could improve my approach with the parents to visitation that avoids legal action?
- If I obtain visitation but the parents still resent it, will the environment during visits be healthy for the kids?
Thinking through the broader picture beyond just obtaining grandparent rights leads to better outcomes for extended families.
Acquiring grandparent visitation rights through the courts has major financial impacts, costing anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 in most cases. The exact total depends on the complexity of the situation, if litigation is contested, length of the case, and other factors. Key expenses include legal fees, court costs, travel, and paid experts like custody evaluators.
But in situations where parents unreasonably deny access to grandchildren with whom grandparents have close bonds, seeking visitation through the courts may be the only recourse left. With realistic expectations about the costs and challenges involved, grandparents can make informed decisions.