Grandparent Visitation in Wisconsin

Finally, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has clarified an important issue in the law concerning visitation rights of grandparents and other non-parents under Wisconsin law. The case, Marriage of Meister, relates to Section 767.43 of the Wisconsin Statutes, titled “visitation rights of certain persons.”

Generally, a child’s parents have sole authority to determine who the child does and does not spend time with. Grandparents, other relatives, stepparents, family friends, have no right to spend time with the child if the parents object. Section 767.43 provides an exception to that principle, setting out specific circumstances in which these third parties may ask a court to grant them visitation with a child over the objections of the parents.

The problematic language arises in subsection (1) of the statute: Under certain circumstances a court may grant reasonable visitation rights “upon petition by a grandparent, great grandparent, stepparent or person who has maintained a relationship similar to a parent-child relationship with the child.” The issue is one of statutory interpretation: under this language, does anyone who wants visitation under this statute have to have maintained a “relationship similar to a parent-child relationship” with the child? Or is it only a person other than a “grandparent, great grandparent, or stepparent” who has to have maintained a parent-like relationship with the child in order to request visitation?

In an opinion authored by the soon-to-be-retired Justice David Prosser, the Supreme Court adopted what in our view is the only reasonable reading of the statute: “A grandparent, great grandparent, or stepparent need not prove a parent-child relationship to succeed on a petition for visitation.” ¶ 22.  Stating that this subsection “is not wholly unambiguous,” ¶ 23, the court based its conclusion on the statutory language in context and the legislative history.

We sometimes find ourselves in disagreement with Justice Ziegler’s decisions and opinions. In this case, however, her concurring opinion expresses our view exactly: “[T]he plain text of [the statute] is unambiguous. The court’s further analysis of [the statute] simply confirms that the obvious interpretation of the statute is the correct one.” ¶ 80.