Goff v. Goff, 92-3

Decision Date06 January 1993
Docket NumberNo. 92-3,92-3
Citation844 P.2d 1087
PartiesWilliam E. GOFF, III, and Mary E. Goff, Appellants (Respondents), v. William E. GOFF and Helen Goff, Appellees (Petitioners).
CourtWyoming Supreme Court

Kenneth M. Koski, Powell, and Shawn J. McBrien, Bormuth, Freeman & Montgomery, Cody, for appellants.

William L. Simpson, Simpson, Kepler & Edwards, Cody, for appellees.

Before MACY, C.J., and THOMAS, CARDINE, URBIGKIT * and GOLDEN, JJ.

THOMAS, Justice.

The primary issue presented in this case is whether Wyoming's grandparent visitation statute, Wyo.Stat. § 20-7-101 (Supp.1992), extends to affording rights of visitation to grandparents when the custodial parent is the grandparents' own child. A secondary issue raised by the custodial parent and his wife is whether the trial court abused its discretion in determining the extent of the visitation rights afforded to the grandparents. We hold that the statute extends to situations in which a grandparent is seeking rights of visitation against the natural child of the grandparent, and the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding the defined visitation rights to the grandparents. The Order for Grandparents Visitation Rights is affirmed.

Appellants, the custodial parents, present the issues as:

1. Whether the District Court abused its discretion and committed an error of law in finding that the Appellees had a cause of action for grandparent visitation rights pursuant to Wyoming Statutes § 20-2-113(c) and § 20-7-101.

2. If the Supreme Court does find that the Appellees had a cause of action for grandparent visitation pursuant to Wyoming Statutes § 20-2-113(c) and § 20-7-101, did the District Court abuse its discretion because the visitation ordered, substantially impairs the Appellants' rights, was not in the best interest of the child and the visitation granted was excessive.

The appellees, the grandparents, state the issues in this way:

1. The District Court correctly applied W.S. § 20-7-101 (1977) in holding that Appellees were entitled to reasonable visitation with their granddaughter.

A. The District Court did not commit an error of law in finding that Appellees had valid causes of action under both W.S. § 20-7-101(a)(i) [Wyo.Stat. § 20-2-113(c) ] and W.S. § 20-7-101(a)(ii).

B. The District Court did not abuse its discretion in finding that Appellees were denied reasonable visitation by Appellants.

2. The Appellants have not preserved the question of the constitutionality of § 20-7-101; if the issue is properly before this Court, the Statute is constitutional and does not infringe on any recognized and protected constitutional rights of the Appellants; and the District Court did not abuse its discretion in granting visitation over the objections of the Appellants nor is the scope of that visitation an abuse of discretion.

The custodial parent and his wife were married in August, 1986, and they currently live in Cody with their three children, the grandchild, who is the subject of this action, and two half-siblings. The grandchild is the child of the custodial parent from a prior marriage. The siblings are the natural children of the custodial parent and his present wife.

The grandparents live in Kingston, Arkansas. In August of 1982, shortly before the custodial parent was divorced from his first wife, he began nursing school in Arkansas. To assist the custodial parent in completing his degree and establishing employment, the grandchild lived with the grandparents in Kingston from December of 1982 until December of 1986. At that time, the custodial parent, who had recently remarried, moved with his wife and the grandchild from Arkansas to Casper.

Since moving to Wyoming, the custodial parent and his wife have allowed the grandparents one extended visit of six weeks with the grandchild in the grandparents' Arkansas home during the summer of 1987. In 1990, the grandchild was adopted by the custodial parent's present wife and, from that point on, they became the custodial parents. Since the visit in 1987, the custodial parents have allowed the grandparents only limited visitation with the grandchild, usually under the custodial parents' supervision. The custodial parents have justified their practice of allowing only supervised visitation by alleging the grandparents' failure to adhere to the custodial parents' disciplinary guidelines. More specifically, they assert the grandparents allowed the grandchild to watch a video the custodial parents considered inappropriate, and the grandparents purchased a jean jacket for the grandchild contrary to the wishes of the custodial parents.

The grandparents filed a Petition to Establish Grandparent Visitation Rights in the district court in Park County. Trial was commenced some three months later and, after a continuance, it was completed about the fourth month after the action was filed. The district court found the custodial parents had denied the grandparents reasonable visitation with the grandchild, and it entered an order outlining a grandparent's visitation schedule. The order provided, in substance, that, during the months of June, July, or August, the grandparents would be allowed a consecutive ten-day period of visitation with their grandchild, in their Arkansas home if that were their choice, without the supervision of the custodial parents; the grandparents would be allowed one weekend of unsupervised visitation with the grandchild every month; and the grandparents would be allowed visitation during the Christmas holiday from December 26 through December 30.

In their primary challenge to the order of the district court, the custodial parents contend Wyoming's grandparent visitation statute, § 20-7-101, does not extend to this situation. 1 The custodial parents contend the statute should be invoked only when the person having custody of the grandchild is not the natural child of the grandparent who is seeking visitation. This argument cannot be supported by reference to the statute. Our rule is that, if the language of a statute is plain and unambiguous and conveys a clear and definite meaning, we do not resort to any rules of statutory construction in applying it. Matter of Adoption of RDS, 787 P.2d 968 (Wyo.1990); Halliburton Company v. McAdams, Roux and Associates, Inc., 773 P.2d 153 (Wyo.1989). The language of the grandparent visitation statute, § 20-7-101(a), is plain and unambiguous, and it conveys a clear and definite meaning. The statute states that a grandparent may bring an original action against any person having custody of the grandparents' minor grandchild. 2 No restriction upon the identity of the person against whom the grandparent may bring the action can be found in either subpart (i) or (ii) of § 20-7-101(a). Subpart (i) of the statute refers generally to "the person" having custody, and subpart (ii) obviously extends to both parents of the grandchild.

We would decide this case simply by examining the language of the statute, but the case is novel and of substantial import to many people. We note that the statement of purpose in the enacting clause found in 1991 Wyo.Sess.Laws, ch. 119 § 1 is consistent with our reading of the statute since it contains no language that would limit an action for visitation rights by a grandparent whose own child is the custodial parent of a grandchild. The enactment clause reads:

AN ACT to create W.S. 20-6-701; and to amend W.S. 20-2-113(c) relating to grandparent visitation rights; specifying when grandparents may commence original action to establish visitation rights to a minor grandchild; providing that courts may grant reasonable visitation rights to grandparents if in the best interest of the child; providing procedures; and providing for an effective date. 3

The only specific proviso to be found in the enactment clause is the mandate that the rights of visitation granted to the grandparent be reasonable and also in the best interests of the child. This phrase demonstrates the primary legislative concern with the advancement of the best interests of the child and does not demonstrate any concern with respect to limiting the grandparent who can be granted visitation rights.

In addressing a contention that the policy justification for establishing visitation rights in grandparents was primarily to afford emotional support when the child is faced with the death of a parent or the dissolution of the family, the Supreme Court of New Jersey noted that the justifications are much broader. That court observed:

It is [a] biological fact that grandparents are bound to their grandchildren by the unbreakable links of heredity. It is common human experience that the concern and interest grandparents take in the welfare of their grandchildren far exceeds anything explicable in purely biological terms. A very special relationship often arises and continues between grandparents and grandchildren. The tensions and conflicts which commonly mar relations between parents and children are often absent between those very same parents and their grandchildren. Visits with a grandparent are often a precious part of a child's experience and there are benefits which devolve upon the grandchild from the relationship with his grandparents which he cannot derive from any other relationship. Neither the Legislature nor this Court is blind to human truths which grandparents and grandchildren have always known.

Mimkon v. Ford, 66 N.J. 426, 332 A.2d 199, 204-05 (1975).

Scholarly study and research has confirmed this position articulated by the New Jersey Supreme Court and has demonstrated that children who miss out on the bonding process with grandparents are deprived of a valuable experience. One author has set forth the significant factors in this way.

Social scientists have identified at least four "symbolic" roles that help explain the ways in which grandparents influence their families. The "being there" role requires nothing more than a grandparent's...

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