Facts: After the children were adjudicated dependent and neglected, the maternal great-grandparents were awarded temporary custody. The children lived with the great-grandparents for the next six years.
Once custody was restored to the biological parents, the great-grandparents petitioned for grandparent visitation.
The biological parents opposed any visitation and asserted the great-grandparents lacked standing to seek grandparent visitation pursuant to Tennessee’s grandparent visitation statute, Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-306.
The trial court held the great-grandparents did not fall within the definition of “grandparents” under Tennessee law and, therefore, they lacked standing to petition the court for grandparent visitation rights.
The great-grandparents appealed.
On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.
As the result of lobbying by advocates of grandparents’ rights and senior citizens, all fifty states now have laws providing for an order of visitation by grandparents under certain circumstances. However, the nature of grandparent visitation statutes varies significantly from state to state.
Some states allow great-grandparents to petition for visitation under their grandparent visitation statutes. Some of these states have grandparent visitation statutes that explicitly refer to visitation by grandparents or great-grandparents. In some states, courts have examined grandparent visitation statutes that simply use the term “grandparents,” with no definition of the term or mention of great-grandparents, and concluded that great-grandparents do not fall within the plain meaning of the term grandparents. At the other end of the spectrum, some states have statutes that expressly define “grandparent” in a manner that excludes great-grandparents.
Tennessee’s grandparent visitation statute — Tennessee Code Annotated § 36-6-306 — is unique. It provides a mechanism for a grandparent to file a petition for visitation and includes the following guidance with regard to the term “grandparent”:
(e) Notwithstanding any law to the contrary, as used in this section and in § 36-6-307, with regard to the petitioned child, the word “grandparent” includes, but is not limited to:
(1) A biological grandparent;
(2) The spouse of a biological grandparent; or
(3) A parent of an adoptive parent.
Tennessee’s grandparent visitation statute applies only to persons who satisfy the statutory definition of the term “grandparent.” As a result, a court does not have subject matter jurisdiction to hear a petition for grandparent visitation unless the party filing the petition falls within that definition.
After reviewing the applicable law, the Court concluded:
[T]he Tennessee General Assembly did not intend to enact the type of grandparent visitation statute that would grant standing to only four grandparents. The statute lists three different categories of persons who qualify as grandparents, as illustrative examples, and it goes on to state that the term “grandparents” is not limited to those categories. This clearly evinces the Legislature’s intent not to limit the statutory definition of “grandparent” to only the three listed categories. Rather, the Legislature’s wording in Section 36-6-306(e)(1) indicates an intent to provide standing to lineal ancestors, or grandparents who are biologically related to the child. In this case, there is no dispute that [the great-grandparents] are lineal ancestors of the children, are biologically related to them, and, therefore, are within the same group of people contemplated in Section 36-6-306(e)(1). Considering the expansive definition of the term “grandparent” used in the Grandparent Visitation Statute, we hold that [the great-grandparents], as great-grandparents of the children, have standing to seek grandparent visitation, and, as a result, the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction over their petition. We express no opinion as to the merits of [the great-grandparents] petition and remand for the trial court to render an opinion as to that issue.
Accordingly, the trial court’s ruling was reversed.
K.O.’s Comment: Other Tennessee cases have held that certain petitioners do not fall within the scope of the Grandparent Visitation Statute’s definition of “grandparent,” including a former step-grandparent and an adult sibling.
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce and Family Law Attorney.