Family Law Case Review: Troxel Principles & Visitation Orders

Case: In Re: Visitation M.L.B.: K.J.R. v. M.A.B.
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll 

HELD: Trial court’s grandparent visitation order was remanded by the Indiana Supreme Court for failing to provide specific findings as to all four “Troxel principles” that address the balance between parental rights and a child’s best interests; such an oversight renders a grandparent visitation order per se unconstitutional.

DICTA: The Indiana Supreme Court suggests that a grandparent visitation order may run afoul of the “Troxel principles” where it provides for materially more visitation time than the grandparent enjoyed with the child before the visitation order.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY:
Child was born in 2004, out of wedlock, to Mother and Father. The relationship between Mother and Father soon ended, but paternity was later established. Father apparently did not pursue a relationship with Child; however, the paternal grandfather (“Grandfather”) did establish a meaningful relationship with Child, beginning with visits to the hospital when Child was born, and continuing through frequent, informally arranged visitation of a few hours in duration for years thereafter.

Mother remarried in 2006. In 2010, Stepfather initiated adoption proceedings. At about the same time, Mother ended Grandfather’s informal visitation with Child, who was then 6-years-old. Father contested the adoption, while Grandfather intervened seeking a grandparent visitation order.

After a consolidated hearing on the adoption and grandparent visitation petitions, the trial court granted the adoption, terminated Father’s parental rights, and issued a grandparent visitation order for Grandfather. The visitation order provided for Grandfather to have Child one weekend per month, a block of 10 days each summer, and 10-hour visits on Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and sometime the week of Child’s birthday. Mother appealed the grandparent visitation order.

The Indiana Supreme Court reviewed the case law and statutory history of grandparent visitation in Indiana, which has been significantly influenced by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Troxel decision in 2000. As later adopted by the Indiana courts, an Indiana trial court considering a grandparent visitation request must consider and make findings as to the four “Troxel principles”:

1. A presumption that a fit parent’s decision about grandparent visitation is in the child’s best interests;

2. The “special weight” that must be given to a fit parent’s decision regarding nonparental visitation;

3. That “some weight” be given to whether a parent has agreed to some visitation or denied it entirely, since the very existence of a relationship between the child and grandparent hinges on this; and

4. Whether the petitioning grandparent has established that visitation is in the child’s best interests.

In the instant case, the trial court did not make findings as to all four of the “Troxel principles”. The Indiana Supreme Court concluded that this, without more, rendered the grandparent visitation order unconstitutional.

The Court concluded that the appropriate remedy was remand without a new hearing. The Court further guided the trial court that a mere recitation of the “Troxel principles” would not be adequate, and that there should also be “analysis of how the evidence as weighed by the trial court fits within that framework.” The Court further declined to address whether or how a grandparent visitation order that does not address the “Troxel principles” by name might nevertheless sufficiently address them in substance. The Court also expressed concern that, in the instant case, the trial court’s visitation order had provided for more visitation time than Grandfather previously had with Child and, indeed, even exceeded the schedule Grandfather had proposed to the trial court, implying that the schedule would benefit from being trimmed on remand.

The trial court’s grandparent visitation order was remanded.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: In Re: Visitation M.L.B.: K.J.R. v. M.A.B.

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The Indiana Family Law Update is a free service provided by Bingham Greenebaum Doll, LLP. While significant efforts are made to ensure an accurate summary and reproduction of each opinion, readers are advised to verify all content and analysis with a traditional case law reporter before relying on the content and analysis offered here.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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