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Can a grandmother be denied the right to visit her grandson after a divorce?

In North Carolina, the answer is a definite “yes.”

Recently the case of Regina Michael, a North Carolina resident, has been featured in local news. Ms. Michael has not seen her 8-year-old grandson for over two years. Her grandson’s mother received custody of the child after her divorce from Ms. Michael’s son.

In April 2010, the former daughter-in-law told Ms. Michael that she was no longer welcome in her house and was not permitted to visit her grandchild. Since that date, Ms. Michael has consulted North Carolina family law attorneys in hopes they can help her obtain visitation rights.

So far, the results have been negative.

The Limits to Grandparents’ Visitation Rights in North Carolina

Several states don’t even acknowledge in their legal codes that grandparents might have an interest in their grandchildren. North Carolina, in contrast, has specific rules to deal with grandparents’ custody and visitation rights after a marriage ends. Chapter 50, section 13.5 of the North Carolina General Statutes specifies, “In any action in which the custody of a minor child has been determined, upon a motion in the cause and a showing of changed circumstances pursuant to G.S. 50-13.7, the grandparents of the child are entitled to such custody or visitation rights as the court, in its discretion, deems appropriate.”

Although this seems to create a general right for grandparents to seek visitation time with their grandchildren after a divorce, in practice that right is very limited. Grandparents may only request visitation rights when the matter of child custody is still undecided—that is, after the divorce petition has been filed but before the judge issues the final custody order. Once the custody order is in effect, the person who has primary physical custody of a child has sole discretion about letting grandparents visit. A grandmother doesn’t even have legal standing to request the court revise or reconsider the custody order.

Some other states permit grandparents to request visitation rights at any time. North Carolina has not yet moved in this direction. A bill to expand grandparents’ visitation rights was introduced in the state Senate in 2011, but the measure was not voted on by the legislature.

Meanwhile, Ms. Michael remains torn apart, missing her grandchild. She has regular contact with three other grandchildren, but often wonders about the one she has not seen for two years.

“I want a right to where if I want to go see my grandchildren, I have that right,” she told reporters.