New Georgia regulation provides grandparents visitation alternatives

Katy and Oscar McGuire spent every Friday night watching movies, dancing, playing games and reading books with their young grandchildren until their son Bentley died in an accident in 2020.

“Our son was killed and our ex-daughter-in-law took our grandchildren from us,” said Oscar McGuire.

Bentley was her only son, and his children are McGuire’s only grandchildren.

The Roberta, Georgia couple continued to see their grandchildren off and on for a few more months before their daughter-in-law banned visits. Bentley McGuire’s widow did not return a call asking for comment on this story. The couple last saw her in October 2020, despite repeated efforts since.

The McGuires went to lawyers, mailed a letter, and filed a petition to no avail. They sent birthday and Christmas gifts which they say never reached their grandchildren.

Since the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the last of two previous grandparent-visiting laws as unconstitutional, courts have favored the surviving parent’s verdict over the desire of grandparents like the McGuires or in cases where a parent is disabled or imprisoned.

But now, under a new law set to take effect July 1, unless vetoed, grandparents in Georgia have renewed support for seeking visitation rights with their grandchildren.

“From what I’ve experienced, this is a huge issue just talking about it,” said Oscar McGuire, who said he’s heard from several other grandparents in similar situations since supporting the new legislation. “This is a start and hopefully we can make further improvements where grandparents can see their grandchildren.”

The Grandparent Visitation Act allows courts to grant the parents of a deceased, disabled, or imprisoned parent the right to visit their child’s children if it is determined that the grandchild’s health and well-being would be adversely affected if a pre-existing Relationship between the child and his grandparents would not exist would be allowed to continue.

“They don’t want a parent giving grandparents access. You could have grandparents who are bad people: they don’t want their kids around them,” said Republican Assemblyman Robert Dickey of Musella, McGuire’s local representative. “But when you have this situation with good grandparents who want to help raise the kids and have a positive relationship with them, you want that to happen.”

Legislators have tried several times to pass legislation to support grandparents’ visitation rights with their grandchildren, but the Georgia Supreme Court has invalidated the legislation for interfering with a parent’s constitutionally protected right to raise their children. The court, in its recent 2018 Patten v. Ardis decision, pointed out that the only acceptable solution would be for a judge to make the best interests of the child a primary consideration before overriding a parent’s objection to allow grandparents to protect theirs grandchildren can see.

Democratic Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a longtime family law attorney in Decatur, said the new law, first introduced in the Senate by Republican Sen. Brian Strickland of McDonough, was drafted to accommodate the court’s proposal.

“The way this bill has been drafted is intended to assist the court with some guidance on this narrow circumstance, which may give grandparents the right to see their grandchildren if the parents have objected and the court to do so objection if there is harm to the children to do so,” Oliver told lawmakers at the presentation of the measure.

Oliver said she has seen cases similar to the McGuires’ both in her practice and through her work as an associate law professor at Emory University. Oliver said she worked on cases where a grandparent was the primary babysitter for a grandchild and when their child died and the surviving parent “cut off the grandparent”.

“Parents sometimes act very selfishly to cut off grandparents,” Oliver said. “Sometimes there are financial benefits, but often there are very strong emotional benefits and support, especially when a parent has passed away.”

The McGuires plan to go back to court to seek visitation rights after the law goes into effect on July 1 (unless the governor vetoes it). If a judge grants the couple visiting rights, they may not have their Friday night visits like they used to, but they could see their only grandchildren.

“We are so grateful that God gave us this opportunity,” said Katy McGuire.