No Custody Rights for Grandparents

Both the Washington State and the United States Supreme Courts struck down the Washington State Legislature’s statutes granting grandparents the right to petition for Court ordered visitation with their grandchildren when objected to by the children’s parent

These statutes would have only granted the grandparents the right to seek visitation, not custody.   Even this much smaller request of Court ordered visitation was found to be a violation of the parent’s rights.  The State Supreme Court declared “It is undisputed that parents have a fundamental right to autonomy in child rearing decisions without state interference.”   Our Justices went on to declare “It is cardinal with us that the custody, care and nurture of the child reside first in the parents”, and “State intervention to better a child’s quality of life through third party visitation is not justified where the child’s circumstances are otherwise satisfactory.” 

The “Best Interest of the Child” standard is used by the Court only in developing Parenting Plans for the actual parents of the child.  Where one or both parents are determined to be fit for custodial control of their child, the grandparent or other third party has no right to demand Court ordered visitation.  The parent can deny all contact with their child by all persons other than the other parent.

The State may only infringe upon this parental right of child care and custody if it appears that the parental decision will jeopardize the health or safety of the child.  At the request of a third party, or on the State’s own violition, a petition can be filed in Juvenile Court to declare a parent as “Unfit”, and the child as “Dependent”.  This is a very aggressive and difficult action to pursue.  Parental Rights will be terminated only to protect the child’s health and safety.  The Court must find that the Parent’s custody of the child is detrimental to the child’s well being.

A narrow alternative action for a third party seeking custody of a child is to establish their status as “de fact parent”.   A person desiring to petition for status of de facto parentage must demonstrate that they have fully and completely undertaken a permanent, unequivocal, committed, and responsible role in the child’s life.  The elements that the Court will consider are:  (1) the natural or legal parent consented to and fostered the parent-like relationship;      (2) the petitioner and the child live together in the same household; (3) the petitioner assumed obligations of parenthood without expectation of financial compensation; and (4) the petitioner has been in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established with the child a bonded, dependent relationship, parental in nature.

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