COA reverses judgment against grandparent visitation

Two grandparents won their appeal to petition for visitation rights with their deceased son’s children after the Indiana Court of Appeals found a trial court erred in granting summary judgment to the children’s mothers.

Megan Knight and Ashley Carpenter each bore a child from Braden Walker, the deceased son of Robert and Patricia Walker. When both women remarried, their respective husbands each filed a petition for step-parent adoption after Braden’s death.

In March 2017, the Walkers filed petitions for grandparent visitation for both children under two separate causes, but came to an agreement with the mothers that the trial court would address the issue of grandparent visitation only after the adoptions were finalized. The adoptions were finalized in July and August 2017, respectively.

In January 2018, both Knight and Carpenter moved for summary judgment, arguing that because the adoptions had been finalized, the Walkers no longer had standing to seek grandparent visitation. They also sought to strike the portions of the Walkers’ petitions for grandparent visitation and affidavits in which the Walkers referred to themselves as the “grandparents.”

Former Hamilton Superior Court Judge Steven Nation granted their motions for summary judgment, finding that Braden’s death and the stepfathers’ acts of adopting their respective children severed the legal and familial relationship between the Walkers and the two children. The court also concluded that the Walkers did not do enough by simply filing their petitions before the adoptions were finalized.

On appeal, the Walkers argued that the trial court erred in entering summary judgment to the mothers. Specifically, they contended Knight and Carpenter should be equitably estopped from arguing that the Walkers lacked standing, and that the Walkers preserved their rights to grandparent visitation by filing the petitions before the adoptions were finalized.

Upon reviewing the parties’ agreement, the appellate court found its language to be clear and unambiguous. It also found that all parties understood and accepted the terms as written at the time the agreement was made. 

“Even though there is no evidence of actual fraud warranting the application of equitable estoppel, the Mothers cannot preclude the Walkers from a hearing on their petitions for grandparent visitation after stipulating to the contrary,” Judge John G. Baker wrote. “… We want to avoid a situation in which parties enter into an agreement with the prior knowledge that the law will advantage them, disadvantage an opposing party, and ultimately render the agreement unenforceable.”

Thus, the appellate court concluded that the trial court erred in entering judgment to the mothers in Robert Walker and Patricia Walker v. Megan (Buckner) Knight; Robert Walker and Patricia Walker v. Ashley Erin Carpenter, 18A-MI-1768, and that at a minimum, the Walkers could proceed with a hearing on the merits of their petitions for grandparent visitation.

In an aside, the appellate court addressed confusion surrounding the Walkers’ argument that the act of filing their petitions alone gave them the “visitation rights” necessary to survive adoption under Ind. Code § 31-17-5-9(1) of the Grandparent Visitation Act.

“To the average individual, a phrase like ‘visitation rights’ might not indicate a requirement to obtain a court order,” Baker wrote. “We encourage our General Assembly to clarify what ‘visitation rights’ means so that, in the future, grandparents seeking visitation in the same situation understand the proper protocol.”

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