Is Florida required to enforce another state’s judgment ordering grandparent visitation with minor children, even though Florida law does not generally allow courts to order grandparent visitation?
That question was recently before the Florida Supreme Court.
The petitioner, Ruth and the father of her two minor children were divorced in Colorado in 2010. He died in 2011 in Colorado. Ruth and the children moved to Florida. The paternal grandparents (the “Grandparents”) sued in Colorado to get a court-ordered visitation with the children. Ruth filed a separate action in Florida to register the Colorado divorce and for a judicial determination that the paternal grandparents had no right to timesharing with her minor children. The Colorado court issued a final judgment awarding the Grandparents visitation with the children (“the Colorado order”). Ruth amended her Florida petition, seeking to both domesticate and modify the Colorado order. She argued that under Florida law, enforcement of a grandparent visitation order is unconstitutional and against public policy. After a trial, the Florida court entered an order which registered and domesticated the Colorado order, stated that it was enforceable in Florida, and denied Ruth’s request for modification.
Ruth appealed, arguing that the Colorado order was unenforceable in Florida because it violates childrearing autonomy guaranteed to parents in the Florida Constitution, which states that “[e]very natural person has the right to be let alone and free from governmental intrusion into the person’s private life except as otherwise provided herein.”
The Fifth District Court of Appeal disagreed. It said that “the public policy of one state has no effect on whether the state must give full faith and credit to judgments, rather than law, of another state,” and held that under “the Full Faith and Credit Clause, trial courts are required, without discretion, to give recognition to final judgments of another state when applicable.” The district court concluded that the trial court properly enforced the Colorado order granting the Grandparents visitation, since the Colorado order was a final judgment coming from a “child custody proceeding” within the meaning of Florida Statute § 61.503(4). As a result, it became enforceable in Florida pursuant to the Full Faith and Credit Clause and § 61.526. The Court of Appeal also affirmed the trial court’s decision that modification of the Colorado order wasn’t needed because there hadn’t been any substantial and material change in circumstances.
The Court of Appeal stated that under “the Full Faith and Credit Clause [of the United States Constitution], trial courts are required, without discretion, to give recognition to final judgments of another state when applicable.”
At the Florida Supreme Court, Judge Canady reasoned that final judgments entered by sister states relating to child custody and visitation were entitled to full faith and credit. The Court then considered whether the Full Faith and Credit Clause mandates enforcement of the Colorado order in Florida even if enforcement would violate Ruth’s right of privacy under the Florida Constitution or whether there is a public policy exception to the Full Faith and Credit Clause. The Supreme Court held that there’s no public policy exception to the Full Faith and Credit Clause, and the Colorado order was enforceable in Florida.
The Full Faith and Credit Clause of the United States Constitution provides that “Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State.” This means that states must honor the laws and judgments of sister states. Congress adopted the law about custody determinations when it enacted the Parental Kidnaping Prevention Act of 1980 (PKPA). That Act requires “every State [to] enforce according to its terms . . . any custody determination or visitation determination made consistently with the provisions of this section by a court of another State.” The U.S. Supreme Court explained that “Congress’ chief aim in enacting the PKPA was to extend the requirements of the Full Faith and Credit Clause to custody determinations” and that “the PKPA is a mandate directed to state courts to respect the custody decrees of sister States.” Thus, there was no doubt that custody determinations of a sister state are entitled to full faith and credit, the Florida high court said.
Ruth argued that the PKPA didn’t apply here because this wasn’t a custody issue,” and the PKPA applies only to parents. However, the Florida Supreme Court noted that the PKPA was amended in 1998 and changed the definition of a “contestant” as “a person, including a parent or grandparent, who claims a right to custody or visitation of a child.”
The Florida Supreme Court also considered whether a public policy exception to the Full Faith and Credit Clause exists that would prevent enforcement of the Colorado order in Florida. Ruth argued that enforcement of the Colorado order wasn’t required in Florida because it would offend the right of privacy in the Florida Constitution, and there’s a public policy exception to the Full Faith and Credit Clause. Judge Canady noted that while Florida’s Constitution does protect the right of parents to raise their children free from unwarranted governmental interference, that state right is subordinate to the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause. In addition, the Court explained that the U.S. Supreme Court has held that there’s no public policy exception to the full faith and credit due final judgments of a sister state. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that the Full Faith and Credit Clause “requires each State to recognize and give effect to valid judgments rendered by the courts of its sister States.”
Although the Florida Supreme Court had previously struck down several Florida statutes providing for grandparent visitation as violative of Florida’s right of privacy, the question presented here wasn’t whether the Grandparents were entitled to visitation under Florida law, but whether Florida is required to enforce the Colorado order—even though a similar judgment by a Florida court in the same circumstances would be prohibited by the Florida Constitution. The answer is yes, the Court said. The Florida Supreme Court held that the grandparents right to visitation ordered by the Colorado court was to be recognized in Florida. Ledoux-Nottingham v. Downs, 2017 Fla. LEXIS 336; 42 Fla. L. Weekly S 195 (Fla. February 16, 2017).
It’s not uncommon for children and their families to move from state to state, and you will want to be sure that your visitation rights as a grandparent are protected. DeVoe Law Firm can help you assert your rights to grandparent visitation. Likewise, our firm assists parents with enforcing their rights in raising their children after a divorce.
Statutory requirements, court rules, and administrative orders in child custody and timesharing cases must be strictly followed or you may lose certain rights forever. Call DeVoe Law Firm to schedule a free consultation with an experienced child custody attorney.