Navigating a divorce can be a bit like preparing for the Olympics in Beijing.
You must not only be psychologically and physically fit to withstand the pressure of the competition. You must also deal with the "pollution." Let's stop for a minute and look at the dirty air that can surround divorce: adversarial in-laws.
Recently, I talked to a young woman about her horrendous experience taking on a mother-in-law who inserted herself into her son's divorce agreement.
Elaine explained: "My ex and I were seeking joint custody of our five-year-old when Bill's mother named herself an "interested third party"— demanding grandparent visitation privileges. She is a bitter, vindictive person. I knew she would be playing mind games with our daughter when I wasn't around. I also knew Bill would step back and let his mother take over if she was granted legal access.
"The upshot is my ex reneged on our original agreement and there was a full-blown trial. However, the judge was so disgusted with my mother-in-law's behavior he decided not to split custody down the middle. Bill got 20 percent and I got 80 percent custody. Bill's mother re-filled, but her demands were refused. This went on for four years!"
As in this case, most recent federal child welfare rulings favor parents over grandparents who petition for rights to gain access to their grandchildren. Even when there is evidence that a parent has been absent from a child's life (in jail, chronically ill or deemed incompetent) or the grandparents have been a primary caregiver, parents take precedence. Sometimes grandparents may have no other recourse but to turn to a family law attorney who would petition their case before the court when they are shut out of their grandchildren's lives.
In most cases, the courts (which vary greatly from state to state) will try to act in the best interests of the child. They will consider the petition of grandparents when there is some kind of disruption of the intact family and investigate the prior grandparent-child relationship before making a judgment. Oftentimes it is up to the grandparents to prove that severing the relationship would be harmful to the child. Even then, however, parents can argue their right to restrict visitation with grandparents.
In my book Your Child's Divorce: What to Expect ... What You Can Do, I guide grandparents through each stage of their child's divorce. And I repeatedly make this important point: Grandparent visitation remains a privilege not a constitutional right. I would have advised Bill's mother to avoid the legal route knowing the emotional pain and cost to all parties.
Sadly, Bill's mother only added fuel to the marital fire and ruined any possibility for post-divorce family harmony. It is difficult to say what precipitated this bloody duel.
If you find yourself in a similar predicament, be proactive to avoid legal entanglements. For starters, make a list of people who will intercede in your behalf, and write some positive statements that will demonstrate to your ex-in-law your interest in maintaining a good relationship post-divorce even if this means eating crow. With fortitude and foresight, you can be an Olympic champion. Good luck.
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