Good news for Florida grandparents. The Florida House recently passed a visitation bill with profound meaning for Florida grandparents who have become estranged from their grandchildren after a tragedy. A companion bill, SB 1408, is awaiting a final vote on the Senate calendar.
Markel Act in the House
Currently in Florida, a grandparent can only be awarded visitation rights with their grandchildren under extremely limited circumstances, such as when a child’s parents are both deceased, missing, or in a permanent vegetative state.
However, when only one parent is deceased, missing, or in a permanent vegetative state, the other parent must have been convicted of a felony or a violent offense in order for a grandparent to be able to petition for visitation.
Additionally, a court would have to find that the grandparent has established a prima facie case that the surviving parent is unfit or poses a danger of significant harm to the child to be entitled to visitation. If that burden is not met, the court must dismiss the grandparent’s petition.
HB 1119 dramatically changes the law of grandparent visitation in Florida. It expands the ability for a grandparent to petition for visitation rights of his or her grandchild in certain narrow circumstances.
The bill does this by changing Florida Statutes to create a rebuttable presumption for granting reasonable visitation with the petitioning grandparent or step-grandparent under certain circumstances.
If a court finds that one parent of a child has been held criminally or civilly liable for the death of the other parent of the child, a rebuttable presumption arises that the grandparent who is the parent of the child’s deceased parent is entitled to reasonable visitation with the grandchild.
The effort behind the bill, informally referred to as “The Markel Act” was inspired in part by the 2014 murder of FSU law professor Dan Markel, who was hunted down and shot in the head by a hitman shortly after dropping Dan dropped his two sons off at preschool.
Prosecutors have publicly identified Markel’s ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, as an alleged “co-conspirator” to the murder, along with her mother and brother. Law enforcement says Adelson’s motive was to relocate to South Florida amid custody battles with Markel. While Adelson family members have not been arrested yet, three others have — the hitman, who was found guilty and sentenced to life; his accomplice, who pleaded guilty and confessed who had hired them; and their intermediary, who faces a retrial in May.
The bill passed the House with a vote of 112-3.
Florida Grandparent Visitation
I have written extensively on grandparent visitation in Florida. In early common law, there was never a right to visitation by non-parents, and Florida has clung to that tradition. That is ironic, as a lot of elderly voters reside in Florida, and politicians have been trying to create visitation rights to grandparent voters here.
Beginning in 1978, the Florida legislature started making changes to the Florida Statutes that granted enforceable rights to visit their grandchildren.
The Florida Supreme Court built a massive wall blocking Florida grandparent visitation rights, explaining that parenting is protected by the right to privacy, a fundamental right, and any intrusion upon that right must be justified by a compelling state interest. In Florida, that compelling state interest was harm to the child:
“[W]e hold that the [s]tate may not intrude upon the parents’ fundamental right to raise their children except in cases where the child is threatened with harm.”
Not too long ago, the Florida Supreme Court held that under the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act any custody determination or visitation determination – including grandparent rights – are protected and enforceable under the PKPA. And, to the extent that the PKPA conflicts with Florida law, the PKPA controls under the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution because it is a federal law.
Senate Grandparent Visitation
The Senate companion bill unanimously cleared its committees and heads next to the Senate Floor. Both bills have bipartisan support. Specifically, the Senate Bill creates a presumption that a court may award a grandparent reasonable visitation with a grandchild in cases where the court has found that one parent has been held criminally or civilly liable for the death of the other parent of the grandchild unless not in the child’s best interest.
For five years, while the wheels of justice turned, Markel’s parents, Ruth and Phil, were kept from contact with their grandsons. As Ruth commented:
“We have profound gratitude for the Florida House, in particular Speaker Chris Sprowls, Rep. Jackie Toledo, and the other co-sponsors, for their vision and leadership. There’s nothing more important to us than leaving a record of how deeply we’ve tried to reconnect with our grandsons. Out of our tragedy, we hope to create something meaningful for other families to visit their grandchildren. Today marks a powerful day in this journey.”
Toledo tried to downplay the impact on parent rights by commenting that the Senate was not looking at ways to dismantle the rights of parents but to correct the problem in law when one parent retains custody even when implicated in the death of their co-parent.
Justice for Dan, a grassroots group of friends and allies, praises Speaker Sprowls, the bill sponsors, and members for their action for what it deems a clear message: murder can’t be a solution to custody battles.
The Florida Politics article is here.