Grandparent Visitation Denied in Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Horton v. Cooley

June 3, 2020 K.O. Herston 1 Comments

Facts: Two months after Child was born, Mother and Father separated, and Mother and Child moved in with Maternal Grandparents. Mother and Father later divorced with an alternating-week parenting schedule.

Several years later, Mother was still living with Maternal Grandparents when she became engaged. After a short engagement that Maternal Grandparents disapproved of, Mother married Stepfather and moved with Child to Stepfather’s house in Nashville.

When Mother worked full time as a teacher, she allowed Maternal Grandparents to care for Child on weekdays during her parenting time, i.e., every other week. After she became a stay-at-home parent, she continued to bring Child to Maternal Grandparents once or twice a week during her parenting time.

Notably, because Maternal Grandparents refused to accept Stepfather as part of the family, they never visited Child at Mother and Stepfather’s home in Nashville.

The relationship between Father and Maternal Grandparents flourished, which caused added tension between Mother and Maternal Grandparents. Maternal Grandparents often ate meals with Father and Child and attended church together during Father’s parenting time. They also joined Father and Child on birthdays and at holiday celebrations.

Mother communicated that the ability of Maternal Grandparents to see Child during Mother’s parenting time was contingent on them agreeing to stop seeing Father. Mother described it as their choice to invest in their relationship with her ex-husband or with her and her new family.

Maternal Grandparents responded like any reasonable person would—by hiring a lawyer and suing their daughter for grandparent visitation.

Tennessee grandparent visitation

After a three-day trial, the trial court found that Mother did not oppose visitation, had not severely reduced the Maternal Grandparents’ visitation, and there was no danger of substantial harm to Child absent court-ordered visitation. The petition for grandparent visitation was dismissed.

Maternal Grandparents appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.

A parent’s child-rearing decisions are protected by the Constitution if the parent’s decision does not substantially endanger the welfare of the child. A Tennessee court cannot order grandparent visitation without finding that the child will be in danger of substantial harm if visitation is not ordered.

Tennessee courts must first determine whether the parent opposed or severely reduced visitation. If this element is not proven, the inquiry ends there.

Severe reduction means “reduction to no contact or token visitation.” Token visitation means visitation that is merely perfunctory or “of such an infrequent nature or of such short duration as to merely establish minimal or insubstantial contact” with the child.

If parental opposition or severe reduction of visitation is proven, then a Tennessee court must determine whether there is a danger of substantial harm to the child absent court-ordered visitation with the grandparent. If the danger of substantial harm is found, the court must then determine whether the visitation would be in the child’s best interest.

Here, the Court agreed with the trial court’s finding that there was no severe reduction or danger of substantial harm because Maternal Grandparents still saw Child regularly:

[F]or the court to intervene in Mother’s child-rearing decisions regarding visitation, Grandparents were required to show that Mother opposed or severely reduced [their] visitation . . . . They failed to do so. Because Grandparents’ relationship with Child was not severed or severely reduced, their claim for grandparent visitation [] has been rendered moot. Thus, we are not required to consider whether there is a danger of substantial harm to Child if Child does not have visitation with [them].

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Grandparents’ visitation gradually and naturally decreased after Mother “removed” Child from Grandparents’ house by moving in with Stepfather. By the time Mother stopped visitation during her parenting time, Grandparents were already seeing Child during his time with Father. Thus, Grandparents’ visitation was never reduced to “token” as that term is defined in the statute.

The Court affirmed the trial court’s judgment denying grandparent visitation.

Horton v. Cooley (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, May 26, 2020).

Grandparent Visitation Denied in Murfreesboro, Tennessee: Horton v. Cooley was last modified: May 29th, 2020 by K.O. Herston

1 people reacted on this

  1. I believe this is the first case to take up the latest update to the statute, which added “severely reduced”. Being in the middle of one of these, I was glad to see the court address that newest wording.

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