Grandparents rights

Posted on: 26 August 2011 by 50connect editorial

Your relationship with your grandchildren after a family split

Family Law expert James Thornton, of Stowe Family Law, discusses what rights grandparents have when it comes to their grandchildren…

Unfortunately, in a busy family law firm such as ours, we hear the story all too often.

One minute, a grandparent is part of a loving family, enjoying a strong relationship with their child and their partner, in many cases heavily involved in childcare, and able to see their grandchildren whenever they like. But then something happens. The marriage is in trouble and somehow, in a shockingly quick time-frame, that same grandparent finds themselves left out in the cold, denied access to their grandchildren, and with seemingly no way of changing things.

Any divorce is of course terribly sad for all involved. But for the parents of those involved it can often cause more issues than they ever contemplated. Not only do they watch their own child go through the emotional distress of a separation, but they may also have to come to terms with a family set-up that has changed forever.

Sadly – and shockingly – previous research has shown that almost half of grandparents lose contact with their grandchildren after divorce. It is unfortunately far more likely to happen to the parents of the husband, as wives typically tend to remain the primary carer for any children. Perhaps the split was acrimonious, another party is involved or maybe the children move away – whatever happens, it can leave grandparents feeling helpless and alone.

It often seems to surprise people that grandparents have very little rights when it comes to their grandchildren. Although last year the government made noises about addressing the issue, little has materialised since. And so, to most people coming to our office, pleading with us to help them reinstate some kind of access to their grandchildren, our advice follows the same pattern:

  • Don’t play the blame game - However difficult, avoid taking sides. Naturally you will want to side with your own child, and there may be larger issues at play – such as inheritances and family money which you want to protect – but if your relationship with your child’s spouse can remain amicable, try to keep it that way. Also be aware that children can have long memories and if you bad mouth one of their parents, it may come back to haunt you.
  • Talk it out – By far the most successfully maintained relationships are achieved when a family agrees a plan together. Try and be understanding but gently remind your in-law that you can help out where needed with childcare and how much your grandchildren enjoy spending time with you. But don’t pre-empt issues if there aren’t currently any. Everyone is likely to be in a highly charged emotional state and sometimes one perceived accusation can be the straw which breaks the camel’s back.
  • Avoid the courts - Avoid resorting to court action if possible – it’s likely to be an expensive and drawn out process which may result in you being in a worse situation when it finishes. And ultimately it is unlikely to create a positive relationship between you and the child’s parent(s).
  • Revenge is not the answer – Even if your grandchild’s parent seems to be using the child as a weapon, don’t resort to doing likewise. If it ever gets to court, they will look very unfavourably on that kind of behaviour.
  • Be realistic – The children’s time is now going to be split between two parents, as well as extended family and friends. They can feel very torn and it can be exhausting being constantly moved from pillar to post. Don’t expect you will necessarily be able to have the same level of contact as before – things may need to change, at least in the short-term while everyone adapts.
  • If all else fails - If the situation appears to be worsening and reasonable discussion with the parent(s) is failing, seek legal advice as quickly as possible – but try and avoid confrontation or blame if possible.  The aim should still be to seek an amicable solution outside of the courts.

Every circumstance is unique and you may feel that neither parent is a worthy custodian, or a bereavement may have created a different situation, and you may feel the only reasonable option is for the children to live with you more permanently. Obviously in those cases legal action needs seeking at an earlier stage. But it is worth bearing in mind that grandparents currently have no automatic rights to apply for a child to reside with them. If you are seeking residence you must obtain the leave of court to apply, and factors such as your age and current/previous access to the child will be considered. It is, unfortunately, a long-winded and time-consuming process. If successful, only then can you apply for an order.

Hopefully the Childhood and Families Ministerial Task Force, which is looking at the rights of grandparents in the 21st century family, will make quick progress in creating some more rigid, and sensible, rules in this area. After all – I don’t think anyone in their heart of hearts can deny that maintaining a loving, positive and supportive relationship with grandparents is in the best interests of every child.

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