ASKED & ANSWERED: Jessica Woll on grandparents' visitation rights

 By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

A Michigan Court of Appeals panel recently ruled that plaintiff grandparents in a case did not have legal standing to seek a grandparenting-time order because their son’s parental rights were involuntarily terminated as a result of physical abuse. Jessica Woll is a managing partner at Woll & Woll Family Law Specialists in Birmingham. In addition to her law degree from Wayne State University Law School, Jessica holds a degree from the University of Michigan in International Relations and Economic Development, and has lived abroad in England, Japan and Thailand. 


Thorpe: Usually in Michigan, grandparents can petition the court for visitation time after a divorce. What happened in this case?

Woll: Initially, the grandparents in the Porter vs. Hill case were told by the trial judge that they did not have standing to petition the court for grandparent visitation. The reason they were told that they lacked standing was based upon the fact that their son, the minor children’s biological father, Russell Porter, was deceased but before he died his parental rights were involuntarily terminated due to abuse and neglect. The grandparent visitation statute allows grandparents to seek grandparent visitation where their child has passed away and that child is the natural parent of the grandchildren in question. 

The trial court and the Michigan Court of Appeals found that since Russell Porter’s rights were involuntarily terminated, that he was no longer seen as the “natural” parent of the minor children; therefore, the grandparents had no right to ask for grandparent visitation with their grandchildren because their son did not “legally” exist as their father, deceased or otherwise, once the termination occurred.

Fortunately, on April 23, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals finding that the parents of a man whose parental rights had been involuntarily terminated before his death could petition the court for grandparent time. The Supreme Court found that a biological parent of a child is the natural parent regardless of the fact that his rights had been involuntarily terminated for purposes of granting the grandparents standing to petition for grandparent time with their grandchildren.


Thorpe: The trial court, after granting summary disposition for the defendant, stated “I hope the Court of Appeals reverses me on this issue.” Were you surprised?

Woll: No, I believe the trial judge felt that the grandparent’s request to see their grandchildren should be based upon the merits of the request itself, namely whether their desire to spend time with their grandchildren was in the minor children’s best interest, period.


Thorpe: The Beck case of 2010 is mentioned in the decision. Tell us about that.

Woll: The Beck case stands for the premise that a parent’s parental rights, that parent’s right to participate in their minor child’s life, is separate and distinct from the parent’s financial obligations to their child. Hence, even if a parent’s parental rights are involuntarily terminated, he/she still has an obligation to support the child he or she brought into the world until that child reaches the age of majority. An exception to this would be where a biological parent’s rights are terminated to enable a step-parent to legally adopt a child.


Thorpe: How does the Child Custody Act figure into this case?

Woll: Ultimately, the Child Custody Act is focused on the best interest of the child. The Act was created to protect children and promote their safety and well-being. I believe the Michigan Supreme Court recognized this fact when it found that Russell Porter’s parents; the parents of a deceased father whose rights had been involuntarily terminated prior to his death, did have a right to petition the court to ask to have a relationship with their minor grandchildren.


Thorpe: The majority in the decision said that it “implores the Legislature to amend the statute.” Do you think that’s likely to happen?

Woll: Yes, Fortunately, the Michigan Supreme Court heard their call and stated in a one paragraph ruling that the Court of Appeals had erred in its finding that a parent whose parental rights had been involuntarily terminated prior to his death should not be seen as the children’s biological parent as a basis for denying his parents standing to request grandparent visitation. The Supreme Court stated:“… under the circumstances of this case, a biological parent is encompassed by the term “natural parent” regardless of whether the biological parents rights have been terminated…”


Thorpe: Is this the last we’ve heard of this case or do you expect the plaintiffs to pursue other actions?

Woll: I believe the grandparents in this case are headed immediately back to the Circuit Court in Saginaw to petition for visitation with their grandchildren. While Saginaw Circuit Court Judge James Borchard commented that the grandparents seemed like fine people when the case was first before him, it will be up to him on remand from the Michigan Supreme Court to determine whether it is in these minor children’s best interests to have a relationship with their grandparents based upon the evidence presented to him at a hearing for and against theses grandparents rights to have grandparent visitation.