In Ohio, an order granting grandparent visitation comes into question after the remarriage of the child’s father. Does the father’s remarriage, and the adoption of the child by the new stepmother, cut off the grandmother’s court ordered visitation rights?
The Heart of It All
The child. L.S. was born in 2014, to unmarried parents. In 2019, a court awarded John Snyder – the child’s natural father – legal custody. At the same time, Zadunajsky, L.S.’s paternal grandmother, was granted companionship rights with the child.
Then in 2021, Snyder filed a motion to terminate or modify the grandmother’s visitation order because the child has now been adopted by his stepmother, and there is an intact family. The lower court granted the Father’s Motion for Termination without any hearing or the proffering of any evidence.
Instead, the magistrate ruled as a matter of law that in Ohio:
Once the adoption took place, the Paternal Grandmother no longer had standing to seek visitation. Once an adoption order has been entered, all grandparent visitation rights are terminated.
The lower court held there was no case law in Ohio that allows a court to grant or maintain established visitation once an adoption is granted. The legislature has not provided grandparent visitation in the case of an adoption.
This legal reality is very frustrating to courts because the main issue should be what is in the best interest of the child. The lower court also held that the Paternal Grandmother would only have standing to seek visitation upon the death of Father or the divorce of the stepmother.
The grandmother appealed arguing that an adoption by the step-mother of the child was a proper basis for terminating the pre-existing visitation of the paternal grandmother.
Florida Grandparent Visitation
Under current law in Florida, a grandparent may be awarded some visitation rights in very limited situations, such as when the child’s parents are deceased, missing, or in a permanent vegetative state. If 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 Florida court has to also 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. If that burden is not met, the court must dismiss the grandparent’s petition.
In 2022, Florida amended the grandparent visitation law as a result of the murder of FSU Professor Dan Markel. Supporters of the amendment call it the “Markel Act.” Professor Markel was shot to death in his driveway by hitmen hired by his ex-brother in law. His ex-mother in law was recently arrested at Miami International Airport after attempting to board a one way flight to Vietnam.
The new law creates a rebuttable presumption for grandparent or step-grandparent visitation, but only in cases where one parent has been found criminally liable for the death of the other parent, or “civilly liable for an intentional tort causing the death” of the other parent.
The presumption may be overcome only if the court finds that visitation is not in the child’s best interests. The bill does not distinguish between biological grandparents and step-grandparents.
Somewhere in Ohio
The Ohio appellate court agreed with the grandmother and reversed. The opening words of the statute exempt a spouse and the relatives of the spouse from the effects of a final decree of adoption. As Snyder was spouse of the adopting stepparent and Zadunajsky was a relative of Snyder, they are exempt from those effects.
The Father also argued that previous cases affirmed divesting biological grandparents of their visitation and companionship rights. However, the legislature’s intent was to find families for children. The legislature was concerned that if adoptive parents are forced to agree to share parenting responsibilities with people they don’t know, potential adoptive parents will be deterred from adopting. But that legislative intent did not apply to the relatives of the spouse/biological parent in a stepparent adoption.
On remand, the family court may consider whether the continuation of Zadunajsky’s companionship rights is in the best interest of the child in light of the stepparent adoption.
The opinion is here.