Court: Grandparents’ Rights Not Automatically Terminated in Adoption
In New Jersey when a child is given up for adoption, the rights of the biological parents are terminated at the end of the adoption process. What happens, however, to the rights of the child’s biological grandparents?
Prior to the 1970’s, grandparents had no legal visitation rights. Then divorce rates began to rise and so did the number of single-parent homes. Grandparents began to take a more active role in raising their grandchildren and states began to adopt laws granting grandparental visitation rights. (1)
Today New Jersey law gives grandparents the right to seek visitation with their grandchildren if they are at any time denied such visits by the children’s parents. The grandparents must prove visitation is in the child’s best interest and the court will consider a series of factors when granting this request, including the relationship between the child and the grandparent(s), the relationship between the child’s parents and the grandparents, and the effect the visitation may have on those relationships. (2)
These rights usually come into play in divorce cases. Adoption is a different matter; here, New Jersey adoption laws and grandparent rights can conflict. A recent Bergen County case highlights this conflict.
In this case, paternal grandparents of two children applied to the Bergen County Superior Court for visitation rights after being cut off by the children’s adoptive parents. The judge ruled in favor of the adoptive parents, stating that the State’s adoption laws terminating the rights of the biological parents also pertain to the rights of the biological grandparents. The State Appellate Division disagreed. (3)
The Appellate Court pointed to several factors supporting its decision. First, the adoption laws that originally terminated the relationships between the child and the biological parents and rights of all other persons based on that relationship were repealed in the late 1970’s. The new act eliminates reference to other persons. (3) Second, the lower court’s decision was based on a precedent involving non-relative adoptions. In this case, one of the adoptive parents is the biological mother’s cousin. (3)
Finally, the adoptive parents themselves indicated through their actions that the adoption did not preclude the grandparents’ visitation rights, because they allowed such visits until the grandparents allegedly began to question their parenting methods. (3)
In short, the Appellate Court ruled that in New Jersey termination of the biological parents’ rights does not apply automatically to the rights of the biological grandparents in adoption cases.