Can Grandparents Be Awarded Virtual Visitation?

Parents May Be Paving the Way for Grandparents

Black woman video conferencing with grandson on computer
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Some noncustodial parents are being awarded virtual visitation, entitling them to video chats or video conferencing with their children. Grandparents may wonder how virtual visitation figures in grandparent visitation rights.

At this time, virtual visitation — sometimes called visual visitation, e-visitation or electronic visitation — can be included in court actions for grandparents seeking visitation rights. As a rule, virtual visitation is not considered separately from other visitation rights. Grandparents who do not qualify in the eyes of the court for face-to-face visitation are highly unlikely to win any type of electronic visitation. If, however, they are judged eligible for regular visitation, they may be able to get virtual visitation added, especially if they are long-distance grandparents.

Background of Virtual Visitation

The term virtual visitation began to appear in legal journals around 2002. Virtual visitation allows non-custodial parents to keep in touch with children when distance or other issues keep them from visiting face-to-face. It has also been implemented in some prisons to allow incarcerated parents to stay in contact with their children.

Most virtual visitation is carried out via computer and webcam, using programs such as Skype. The FaceTime app, available on iPhone, iPad and iPod, allows mobile video calling and is contributing to the growth in virtual visitation, according to Richard S. Victor, a Michigan lawyer who is the founder of Grandparents Rights Organization.

How to Win E-Visits With Grandchildren

Grandparents who are in the process of formalizing their visitation rights through the court system and who desire virtual visitation should be sure that it is specified in the negotiations. At least six states have formalized virtual visitation in law, but no states have formalized virtual visitation for grandparents.

Grandparents have a better chance of winning virtual visitation in states where parents can be awarded e-visitation. The states that have addressed electronic visitation for parents include Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, Illinois, North Carolina, and Florida. 

"Since Skype has been addressed in our custody/visitation statutes, a grandparent with proper standing could get court ordered visitation via phone and/or Skype or a similar communication method," said Mark Spencer Williams of Williams of Rice Law in North Carolina. 

On the other hand, it is not necessary to have a state statute addressing virtual visitation before grandparents can win such rights, according to Shirley Berens of the Grandparents Resource Center. Berens is a legal consultant in Colorado, which has no virtual visitation statute, but she says that if grandparents request it, virtual visitation "would be talked about in court between the parties and would, if agreed upon, be put in the order."

Carrying Out E-Visits

Just as parents are supposed to co-operate with grandparents who win regular visitation, parents can be required to make their children available for electronic communication. The parties involved need to have compatible devices and Internet access. Then both parties need to be in front of their devices at the appointed time.

It's easy for parents who want to obstruct a grandparent's access to claim excuses for not being electronically available. A child can be said to be asleep, ill or tied up with another obligation. The Internet can be said to be down, or a device may be said to be malfunctioning. Just as some grandparents have to take decisive measures to get their face-to-face visitation enforced, some will have to do the same thing with virtual visitation. 

Privacy is another issue in virtual visitation. If regular visitation is unsupervised, the parent is not privy to what a grandparent says to a grandchild. In virtual visitation, however, grandparents have no expectation of privacy. This is especially true of younger children, for whom unsupervised use of an electronic device is never a good idea. Even older children may be required by parents to use a common computer rather than the child's own device so that contact can be monitored. Grandparents may hope for uncensored communication with a grandchild, but in the case of electronic communication, that's unlikely to happen unless the parent is particularly amenable.

Not a Substitute for In-Person Visits

Authorities on family law warn that virtual visitation is not a substitute for visiting in person. That is as true for grandparents as it is for non-custodial parents. However, virtual visitation can be a godsend for grandparents who can't make a long trek to see a grandchild, or for grandparents in bad health.

Learn more about visitation laws in specific states and how to determine which state has jurisdiction.