The divorce decree or other court order will set out the details of your child custody arrangements. Some parents may then amicably agree on child visitation rights without the need for any judicial involvement, while others will need to have a plan imposed on them. Even if the parents’ relationship is amicable, it is prudent to have the visitation details set out in writing, particularly as the parents’ relationship may deteriorate over time.

1. What if my child refuses visitation with the other parent?

Courts generally decide that it is in the best interests of the child to visit with both parents, therefore the custodial parent should not interfere with the visits of the non-custodial parent. If your child is reluctant to visit with or be taken by the non-custodial parent, you should try to find out the reason why. You must ensure that it is not your own conduct or manipulation of the child that is causing their reluctance to go on a visit. It may be that the child is emotionally attached to you as the primary caregiver; however, this is unlikely to constitute a valid reason, and you could be accused of frustrating the rights of the non-custodial parent if the child does not go.

2. Are visitation rights linked to child support?

It is illegal for a custodial parent to deny a non-custodial parent the right to see the child because of late or non-payment of child support. Often, such behavior may be the result of frustration and anger on the part of the custodial parent; however, family courts will frown upon it.

If a parent repeatedly refuses to grant access to the child, a court may increase the visitation rights of the non-custodial parent or even award them full custody of the child. In some cases, the parent may even be found in contempt of court and jailed for their actions.

3. For what legal reasons could a parent be denied visitation?

There are a number of valid reasons why a parent might be denied visitation:

  • If a parent turns up to collect a child and appears to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you may wish to contact the police in order to prevent the child from being placed in danger.
  • If there is suspected emotional, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of either the non-custodial parent or someone else within that household, you may need to take immediate action to protect your child from harm. You should report the matter to law enforcement and the Department of Social Services. You may also wish to consult a family law attorney about getting an emergency court order to halt any further visitation.
  • It may not be in the best interests of the child to visit an incarcerated parent if the visits are harmful to the child; however, the custodial parent would still need the court to sanction this denial of visitation.

4. How do visitation orders get changed legally?

If you have a court order that sets out a visitation schedule, it can be modified by a petition to the court. You will need to show sufficient grounds for your request to change the visitation arrangements, and a court will only grant your request if satisfied that there is a good reason. A typical reason is that the custodial parent is refusing to abide by the original visitation order to the detriment of the child. In December 2015, Gossip Girl star Kelly Rutherford lost custody of her two young children after a court determined that she was interfering with their father’s relationship and access.

5. What happens to visitation arrangements if one parent moves out of state?

Despite the challenges of long-distance parenting, it is important that a child maintains a relationship with both parents. Failure to support and facilitate the other parent’s visitation rights will not be viewed kindly by the courts. If one parent leaves the state with the child without the consent of the other parent or court order, the aggrieved parent may take legal action against the offending parent. Generally, the court that will have jurisdiction to hear a case will be the court in the state where the child has lived for the last six months, referred to as the “home state.”

When one parent moves to a distant state, it can make frequent visits with the child almost impossible. A court may determine that it is in the best interests of the child for the non-custodial parent to have substantial visitation during school holidays.

6. What visitation rights do grandparents and stepparents / non-biological parents have?

Every state has implemented guidelines for granting grandparent visitation, as well as visitation to stepparents and other non-biological parents who petition for such access. Depending on the state, there may be some restrictions on visitation where the child’s parents are deceased or divorced. Other states have more relaxed rules, allowing for visitation where the parents are alive or remain married. In making any visitation decision, the court will be concerned with what is in the best interests of the child, although consideration will be also given to what a fit parent says is best for their child.

In most cases, stepparents will have a difficult challenge if the biological parent does not believe that visitation rights are in the best interests of the child. Courts typically tend to side with the biological parents; however, the child’s emotional, physical, financial and psychological needs are also taken into account. The stepparent petitioning for visitation rights will have a stronger case in situations where the stepparent:

  • Has been in the child’s life since birth or early childhood.
  • Has raised the child over many years.
  • Was married to the biological parent for many years.

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As every case will differ, you should consult a family law attorney in your state with questions about your legal rights and how to petition for child visitation rights.