On April 7, 2016, the Wisconsin Supreme Court published a decision (S.A.M. v. Meister, 2016 WI 22) Grandparents & Grandchildrenconfirming that grandparents, great-grandparents and stepparents of children with divorced parents may petition for visitation rights whether or not they maintain a “parent-like relationship” with their grandchildren, great-grandchildren or stepchildren. This decision is an important milestone in defining the visitation rights of relatives in divorce cases involving minor children, and embraces the Wisconsin legislature’s gradual expansion of visitation rights over time.

Meister involved the divorce of Nancy and Jay Meister, who received joint legal custody of their four minor children. Nancy was given primary physical placement and soon thereafter began to limit the informal visitations of the children’s paternal grandmother, Carol. In light of these changes, Carol petitioned the court for formal visitation rights. Both the Circuit Court and Court of Appeals found that Carol was not entitled to visitation rights because she did not maintain a “parent-like relationship” with her grandchildren.

However, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the previous courts had incorrectly interpreted the relevant statute, which reads:

“[U]pon petition by a grandparent, greatg-randparent, stepparent or person who has maintained a relationship similar to a parent-child relationship with the child, the court may grant reasonable visitation rights to that person if the parents have notice of the hearing and if the court determines that visitation is in the best interest of the child.”

Wis. Stat. § 767.43(1). Based on an interpretation of syntax as well as an examination of the statute’s legislative history, the Supreme Court found that the qualifying clause “who has maintained a relationship similar to a parent-child relationship with the child” applies only to persons other than grandparents, great-grandparents and stepparents.

The Supreme Court further held that these statutory visitation rights do not unconstitutionally infringe on a parent’s right to direct the care, custody and control of his or her children. The above-referenced statute still requires courts to determine whether such visitation rights are in the best interest of the children, and as such, a fit parent’s determination of the children’s best interest must be given special weight.

Meister illustrates that the Wisconsin legislature has gradually expanded the number of persons who may petition for visitation rights. Currently, grandparents, great-grandparents and stepparents may petition for such rights, as well as other persons who have “maintained a relationship similar to a parent-child relationship with the child.” A grandparent, great-grandparent, or stepparent does not need to prove the existence of a parent-child relationship in order to secure visitation rights under Wis. Stat. § 767.43(1).

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