When a service member dies on active duty, not only is a life lost but so is a critical link between grandparents and grandchildren.

One issue that has come up is the visitation rights of grandparents. For a variety of reasons, The surviving spouse may not want the grandparents to spend time with the children or maybe it's not convenient. The grandparents, meanwhile, may cherish their grandchildren and see the relationship as a way to keep a service member's memory alive.parents of the deceased service member may not be allowed to spend time with their grandchildren although they want to be a part of the children's lives. In most cases, it’s a great benefit for the children to have that relationship with their grandparents. It’s also another way to keep that service member’s memory alive — important for grandparent and grandchild alike. 

But family relationships are complicated, and there are many instances that have arisen when grandparents were not allowed to see their grandchildren. Thus, the Military Spouse JD Network, in conjunction with its pro bono legal assistance program for loved ones of service members who have died on active duty, has produced a guide for grandparents whose relationship with their grandchildren has suffered after the loss of the child’s service member parent. The network’s Justice for Military Families pro bono program is a partnership with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS)

Numerous military spouse attorneys invested their time in researching and compiling the guide.

"It really came up when we first started working with TAPS in 2014," said Josie Beets, president-elect of the Military Spouse JD Network, and previous director of the organization's Justice for Military Families project to provide free legal assistance to military families. "A grandparent is unhappy with their access to their grandchild," she said. "These cases are emotional and complicated ... and on the other side of this is a military spouse."

Legal action should be the last resort in these circumstances, Beets said. "It's best for everyone to get together to do what's best for the child. If not, we hope this guide offers useful information."

The state where the child resides is generally where the grandparent must file to seek visitation. Because of the cases' complexity of the cases, it’s been difficult to match grandparents with military spouses who specialize in these issues and can provide free legal assistance without charge, Beets said. Instead, the organization's members felt they could best serve grandparents by providing a guide for these situations. "We felt a little helpless to provide assistance. This was the middle of the road." Numerous military spouse attorneys invested their time in researching and compiling the guide.

It's an uphill battle for grandparents in these cases, she said.

The guide cites a 2000 Supreme Court decision, Troxel v. Granville, which established that courts will presume that fit parents act in the best interests of their children, even when those parents limit or prohibit grandparent visitation.

Grandfather and grandchild walking in nature path
Grandfather and grandchild walking in nature path

Grandfather and grandchild walking in nature path

Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Every state has addressed the issue, Beets said, and states have different requirements for what grandparents have to prove in order to gain visitation rights. burden of proof for grandparents related to why they should be allowed visitation. "That’s why we felt it was important to do the state-by-state assessment," she said. The guide also provides links to state laws and other information.

cut for space: Courts only accept requests for visitation by certain grandparents who "have standing" to seek enforcement of their rights, according to the guide. That means the court will only hear a grandparent's request if there has been a death, divorce or other event occurring within the nuclear family of the grandchild.

"We understand the complications that may arise in family dynamics following a death in the military, and work to provide compassionate care in support of all who are struggling with these additional issues," said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of TAPS. "When legal issues arise, it is always our goal to partner with the best organizations, such as the Military Spouse JD Network, who can provide sound information on both federal and state law governing these challenging situations."

Every single case is different, Carroll said. "We can only support both sides emotionally and show what the law is in their jurisdiction. It makes it a little easier if they understand it’s the law for everybody," she said.

The guide has been so well received that Military Spouse JD Network will compile guides on other legal subjects of interest to military families, said Gabriela Nostro, director of the Justice for Military Families project.

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at kjowers@militarytimes.com.