In the recently decided case of Koeppel v. Pierson, the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court affirmed a trial court’s ruling that a child’s paternal grandmother stood in legal parity with the child’s father with respect to parenting rights. This ruling underscores the competing legal rights of a natural parent and other family members, in this case his mother, who had been integral to a child’s upbringing to the extent of acquiring “psychological parent” status and equal legal footing with the natural father. The case is a guide for grandparents who are seeking time with their grandchildren, as well as parents who have reason to resist such efforts.
New Jersey law has developed a legal standard strongly favoring the rights of natural parents over grandparents. Under Moriarty v. Brandt, decided in 2003, a grandparent must prove “substantial harm to the child” from not visiting with him/her in order to demonstrate a right to grandparent visitation, a high legal burden to overcome. An exception arises, however, when a grandparent is found to be the “psychological parent” of the child, as defined in Tortorice v. Vanartsdalen, decided in 2012, by proving four elements: (1) that the parent consented to and fostered the grandparent’s parent-like relationship with the child; (2) that the grandparent and the child lived together in the same household; (3) that the grandparent assumed the obligations of parenthood without expectation of compensation of financial compensation by the natural parent and (4) that the grandparent has been in a “parental role” for sufficient time to establish a “bonded, dependant relationship” with the child.
Obviously, such cases are fact-sensitive and require careful planning and skilled representation in order to prevail. Nonetheless, when circumstances permit a grandparent to do so, the result is worth the effort since it thereafter places the grandparent on equal legal footing with the parent concerning the best interests of the child going forward. Anyone contemplating this course of action is strongly advised to consult with experienced legal counsel before proceeding.