We have all heard the term “visitation” before,
especially if you have been involved in a child custody dispute or divorce. The term most often used by family law lawyers and professionals is “parenting time”; referring to the
legal right [and obligation] of a parent to spend time with one’s child following a divorce.
Even grandparents, under
limited and specific circumstances, may have a legal right to visit with their
grandchildren according to Michigan law.
But what about siblings? Does a
brother or sister have the right to visit their sibling, if for some reason
they are no longer living within the same household?
The short answer is that sibling visitation is not recognized as a legal right in Michigan. The Child Custody Act does not provide for visitation rights between siblings. Add adoption into the mix and the result remains the same – but for a more
Earlier this month, the Michigan
Court of Appeals grappled with, and attempted to decide
this very issue in Wilson v King
; a published thus binding opinion of the intermediate appellate court.
Marquita Wilson, the plaintiff-mother in this case, had
three children who were eventually adopted into a new family in 2008 after her
parental rights had been terminated. Ms.
Wilson then gave birth to a fourth child; Mac.
The adoptive parents of Ms. Wilson's three children initially
allowed Mac to visit with his siblings. Sadly, for reasons not stated in the Court
of Appeals opinion, the adoptive parents ultimately discontinued these sibling visits.
Ms. Wilson filed
suit on behalf of Mac in Wayne County Family Court. The family court judge dismissed the claim on the
basis that the right to “sibling visitation” does not exist under Michigan Law. On appeal, Ms. Wilson argued that Michigan law does provide for a cause of action for
sibling visitation and that the lower court had erred in dismissing her
The Court of Appeals upheld the
trial court’s decision – but did not find one way or the other on whether or
not Michigan law provides for a cause of action for sibling visitation. Instead, the Court focused on the fact that
Mac’s older siblings had been adopted.
Adoption legally severs any ties to the prior, natural family, and creates,
in its place, a new adoptive family recognized at law. This means that, legally speaking, Mac’s older
siblings (once they had been adopted) were no longer his legal siblings in the eyes
of the law.
The Court of Appeals held that even if
a cause of action regarding sibling visitation existed (which the Court made
sure to footnote that they offered “no opinion as to the viability of such a
claim”) in Mac’s instance the claim must fail as the three adoptive children
were no longer his siblings.
While we recognize the psychological importance of eliminating contact with biological parents in order to facilitate growth in the new adoptive family, this ruling strikes us as similar in spirit to the old paternity act that denied a biological father standing to seek any parenting time with his child whatsoever.
The ruling seems to foster the notion of wiping-out all traces of the adopted child's biological family. Many adopted children, as they mature, seek out traces of their biological families. Some of these children, as they mature into adulthood, obsess over their lost families and seek therapy to deal with the loss.
At base, however, there is really no-way in cases like this to allow sibling visitation, without also focusing on the biological parents. Our adoption laws currently do not provide for the maintenance of two families; just one: the adoptive family.
Labels: adoption, child custody, Child Custody Act, divorce, family court, family law, family law lawyer, Michigan Court of Appeals, Wayne County Circuit Court