After Governor DeSantis signed House Bill 1119, a new grandparent visitation law becomes effective this month. Often denied any rights to custody and visitation, the new ‘Markel Act’ is a significant step towards increasing Florida grandparent visitation rights in some very narrow, and tragic, situations.
Dan Markel Tragedy
The Markel Act was inspired in part by the 2014 murder-for-hire of Florida State law professor Dan Markel. Professor Markel was killed by hitmen in his driveway after he dropped his two sons off at preschool.
At the trial for Katherine Magbanua and Sigfredo Garcia in 2019, prosecutors claimed that Charlie Adelson – Markel’s ex-brother-in-law, arranged to pay $100,000 for the murder so that Markel’s ex-wife, Wendi Adelson, could get full custody of their two sons and relocate to South Florida.
Garcia was found guilty of first-degree murder and conspiracy but the jury was unable to reach a verdict on Magbanua. She was recently retried and found guilty of first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder and solicitation to commit murder.
In April 2022, Charlie Adelson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and solicitation to commit murder. Markel’s ex-wife Wendi and ex-mother-in—law Donna Adelson were also named as co-conspirators.
During the intervening years, Dan’s parents, the paternal grandparents of the two boys, have been denied any contact with their grandchildren.
I have written about how Florida courts have consistently held as unconstitutional statutes that have attempted to compel visitation or custody with a grandparent based solely on the best interest of the child standard.
The courts’ rulings are premised on the fact that the fundamental right to parent without intrusion by the government is a long-standing liberty interest recognized by both the United States and Florida constitutions.
However, a grandparent may be awarded visitation rights under very limited circumstances, such as when a child’s parents are deceased, missing, or in a permanent vegetative state.
New Grandparent Visitation law
The Markel Act amends Florida law to create a rebuttable presumption for granting reasonable visitation with a petitioning grandparent or step-grandparent under certain circumstances.
Under the bill, if the court finds that one parent of a child has been held criminally liable for the death of the other parent, or civilly liable for an intentional tort causing the death of the other parent, 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 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.
Specifically, the bill says that grandparents can petition courts for visitation with their grandchildren where the living parent was found culpable by a criminal or civil court for the other parent’s death.
“The tragedy of Dan’s murder was compounded by this cruel, unnecessary separation — but until now, Florida law gave his parents no recourse toward reuniting with their grandchildren.”
The new law became effective on July 1st. A copy is available here.