Idaho court says grandparents don’t have right to seek visitation when parents cut off contact

The Idaho Supreme Court overturned a law that allows grandparents to request visiting rights after it was found to be unconstitutionally violating the “fundamental right to parents.”

In Friday’s ruling, the Supreme Court said parents have a fundamental right to maintenance of family ties and to “custody, care and control” of their children. But Idaho state law “apparently allows grandparents to request visits over fit parent objections,” Judge John Stegner wrote for the unanimous court. The court found that the visitation rights were unconstitutional.

The case arose in 2017 after Dennis and Linda Nelson asked a judge to allow them to visit their grandchildren after the grandchildren’s parents, Brian and Stephanie Evans, cut ties. Neither the Nelsons’ nor the Evanses’ attorneys immediately responded to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

But the family members’ relationship has been riddled with strife for some time, partly because the grandmother strongly opposed the parents’ marriage — resulting in no communication between the two sides for nearly a year — and partly because the Evanses said so felt that the grandmother was being manipulative and kept breaking her boundaries.

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The Nelsons and Evanses also had disputes over a shared California home and the Evanses’ decision to move to Idaho, according to the verdict. The discord continued when it came to raising children, with grandparents taking the grandchildren to places like Disneyland for extravagant playdates, and often returning the children home later than requested. The Evanses said the grandparents frequently showed up despite not being invited, and that they used emotional manipulation and pressure tactics to get what they wanted.

“Stephanie and Brian asked the Nelsons not to spend as much money and instead go on simpler dates like Park’s; However, these requests were often ignored,” Stegner wrote. “The Nelsons seemed intent on spoiling the grandchildren, contrary to the Evanses’ express wishes.”

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The lower court where the case began ruled in favor of the parents, finding that the Nelsons did not have legal authority to request visitation. The grandparents appealed and lost in district court and again appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court. In 2020, the Idaho Supreme Court found that state law gave the Nelsons the right to request visitation rights and remanded the case back to the lower court.

Last year, the lower court admitted that the grandparents assimilated into the Evans family to an “exorbitant” degree and that the grandmother’s behavior undermined the parents in the children’s eyes. Still, the lower court objected to how the Evans family severed their children’s ties with their grandparents, saying they may not have adequately explained their concerns to the grandparents before breaking ties.

“Although it was determined that the Nelsons had harmed the grandchildren by acting as they had, the county court then ordered a visit,” as long as the grandparents first sought counseling, according to court documents.

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Meanwhile, the Evans family filed a motion asking the court to declare the Visitation Act unconstitutional. They argued the law served no compelling state interest and allowed fit parents of overzealous grandparents to be brought to justice.

The Supreme Court agreed that the law was unconstitutional, noting that the case had burdened the Evans family — including more than $50,000 worth of attorney fees.

“The Nelsons’ conduct in this case has taken a significant financial and emotional toll on Stephanie and Brian and likely their three daughters as well,” Stegner wrote.

Referring the case back to the district court would only result in additional litigation, the Supreme Court justices found, dismissing the visiting case outright.

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