Tennessee Grandparents' Rights

Qualifying for Visitation Is a Multi-Step Process

Grandparents in Tennessee spending time with granddaughter
Estranged grandparents who must file suit in Tennessee should be ready for a complex process. Photo © altrendo images | Stockbyte | Getty Images

Tennessee is a state in which individual rights -- and parental rights -- are well-protected. Thus, Tennessee's statutes regarding grandparent visitation are lengthy and complex. Determining whether visitation should be granted is a multi-step process.

Establishing Standing

The first step is looking at the child's family situation. In Tennessee, any of the following circumstances constitutes standing to sue for visitation.

  • The father or mother is deceased
  • The child's father and mother are divorced, legally separated, or were never married to each other
  • A parent of the child has been missing for at least six months
  • The child resided in the home of the grandparent for twelve months or more and was subsequently removed from the home by the parent, establishing a rebuttable presumption that denial of visitation may result in irreparable harm to the child
  • There has been a "significant existing relationship" for at least twelve months between the grandparent and grandchild. This relationship was terminated by the parent, not for reason of abuse or endangerment, with this severance being likely to cause "substantial emotional harm" to the child.

In addition, the family qualifies if the court of another state has ordered visitation.

If any of these conditions exists, visitation is requested by a grandparent and the custodial parent objects, court action can follow.


The Harm Standard

The second step is determining whether cessation of the grandparent-grandchild relationship might cause substantial harm to the child. Three qualifying circumstances are listed:

  • The "significant existing relationship" with the grandparent was such that cessation would cause "severe emotional harm" to the child.
  • The grandparent functioned as a primary caregiver, so that interruption of the relationship could cause the child's daily needs not to be met.
  • Loss of a "significant existing relationship" with the grandparent could cause other "direct and substantial harm."

The case In Re Camryne B shows how seriously Tennessee takes the harm standard. In this case, the parents cut off contact between their daughter Camryne and the paternal grandparents. The paternal grandparents already had custody of the mother's first child, a girl named Makenzie. The paternal grandparents sued for visitation with Camryne, stating that visitation was needed to maintain the relationship between Camryne and her half sister Makenzie. The trial court granted visitation, but the award was overturned on appeal. The appellate court found that the harm standard had not been met, and that the desire to keep the sisters together did not justify awarding visitation.

Evaluating the Relationship

The third step is determining whether a grandparent-grandchild relationship qualifies as a "significant existing relationship." Grandparents can clear this hurdle if the child resided with the grandparent for at least six months, if the grandparent was a full-time caretaker for at least six months or if the grandparent had frequent visitation with the child for at least one year.

This requirement penalizes grandparents who have been cut off from grandchildren without having an opportunity to build a relationship.  

The Best Interest Test

The final step is deciding whether visitation is in the best interest of the child. Tennessee law lists 11 determiners:

  • The grandparent's desire to maintain a "significant existing relationship"
  • Any disruption of the parent-child relationship that would result from visitation
  • Any finding of parental unfitness

More Information

The law does have a few bright spots for grandparents. The grandparents are not expected to present expert witnesses. Instead, the court's decision about a "significant existing relationship" will be based upon whether a "reasonable person" would agree. The same standard will be used determine whether loss of the relationship is likely to occasion "severe" emotional harm to the child.

The courts have also found that parents and grandparents have equal standing in suits to modify grandparent visitation. In such suits, there is no longer the presumption that the parents' decision is in the best interests of the child.

In Tennessee, the term grandparent includes biological grandparents and their spouses and the parents of adoptive parents. If a person other than a relative or a stepparent adopts a child, any visitation rights granted will automatically end.

Considering the complexity of the laws in Tennessee, grandparents who foresee family difficulties should take steps to safeguard their grandparents rights by carefully documenting their relationship with their grandchildren.

See Tennessee Code 36-6-306 and 36-6-307.