Grandparent's rights have always been a gray area of family law in Tennessee. However, on September 6, 2013, the Tennessee Supreme Court made a unanimous ruling that may clear up some of the confusion.
It has always been the standard that parents have "superior parental rights" in initial proceedings to determine if grandparent's visitation rights are appropriate. In order to overcome this, a grandparent must prove to the court that if the parent(s) oppose the visitation, that the child will "suffer substantial harm" if visitation with the grandparent is denied, and the visitation is in the best interest of the child. The new ruling set a precedent that while parents enjoy these "superior parental rights" in the initial proceedings for grandparent visitation, they do not carry over to subsequent proceedings to modify or terminate grandparents' visitation rights.
In the case at bar, Neal Lovlace et al. v. Timothy Kevin Copley (Tenn. Sept. 6, 2013) the grandparents were given court-ordered visitation with their grandchild. Soon after the order was entered, tension between the parents and grandparents grew to the point that the grandparents petitioned the court for more time with the child. In response, the parents asked the trial court to terminate the grandparents' visitation altogether. The trial court refused to terminate the visitation, but also refused to extend any more time with the children to the grandparents. It was reasoned that the deterioration of the relationship between the parents and grandparents amounted to a "material change in circumstances." It was further found that the best interest of the child would be best served by minor changes to the visitation arrangement. This decision was appealed, and the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's judgment citing the parents' "superior parental rights" were not properly weighed in the case. The decision was again appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled the trial court made the right assessment and reinstated its judgment.
The impact of this judgment will be known in the coming months, but it is safe to assume that parents can no longer rely solely on their role as a parent in regards to termination or modification of grandparents' visitation rights. Parents and grandparents will now be on equal footing when attempting these types of modifications or terminations.