Katy and Oscar McGuire spent every Friday night watching movies, dancing, playing and reading books with their young grandchildren until their son Bentley died in an accident in 2020.
"Our son got killed, and our former daughter-in-law took our grandchildren away from us," Oscar McGuire said.
Bentley was their only son, and his children are the McGuire's only grandchildren.
The Roberta, Georgia, couple continued to see their grandchildren on and off for a few months before their daughter-in-law stopped allowing visits. Bentley McGuire's widow did not reply to a phone call seeking comment for this story. The couple last saw them in October 2020, despite repeated efforts since.
The McGuires saw lawyers, sent a letter and filed a petition to no avail. They sent birthday and Christmas gifts that they say never reached their grandchildren.
Since the Georgia Supreme Court threw out the latest of two earlier grandparents visitation laws as unconstitutional, the courts have favored the judgment of the surviving parent over the wishing of grandparents like the McGuires, or in cases where a parent is incapacitated or incarcerated.
But now, under a new law set to take effect July 1 unless vetoed, Georgia grandparents have new support for seeking visitation rights with their grandchildren.
"This is a huge problem from what I have experienced just talking about it," said Oscar McGuire, who said he has heard from several other grandparents in similar situations since speaking in support of the new legislation. "This is a start, and hopefully we can continue to make improvements where grandparents can see their grandchildren."
The Grandparents Visitations Rights Act allows courts to grant the parents of a deceased, incapacitated or incarcerated parent the right to visit their child's children when it determines that the grandchild's health and welfare would be harmed if a preexisting relationship between the child and their grandparent were not allowed to continue.
"You don't want to require a parent to let grandparents have access. You could have grandparents who are bad people: you don't want your children around them," said Republican Rep. Robert Dickey from Musella, the McGuire's local representative. "But when you have this situation with good grandparents that want to contribute to the upbringing of the children and have a positive relationship with them, you want that to happen."
The Legislature has tried several times to craft legislation in support of grandparents' right to visit with their grandchildren, but the Georgia Supreme Court has declared the laws invalid for interfering with a parent's constitutionally protected right to raise their children. The court indicated in its latest decision, Patten v. Ardis, in 2018, the only acceptable solution would be for a judge to make the child's welfare the primary consideration before overruling a parent's objection so grandparents could see their grandchildren.
Democratic Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a long-time family law attorney in Decatur, said the new law, which was first introduced in the Senate by Republican Sen. Brian Strickland from McDonough, was crafted to meet the court's suggestion.
"The way this bill has been drafted is to assist the court with some guidelines on that narrow circumstance where the grandparent may be awarded a right to see their grandchildren where the parents have objected and the court will override that objection where there is harm to the children to do so," Oliver told lawmakers in presenting the measure.
Oliver said she has seen similar cases to the McGuires' both in her practice and through her work as an adjunct law professor at Emory University. Oliver said she has worked on cases where a grandparent was the primary babysitter for a grandchild and when their child died, and the surviving parent "cut off the grandparent."
"The parent sometimes is acting very selfishly to cut off grandparents," Oliver said. "Sometimes there's financial benefits, but there's frequently very strong emotional benefits and support, particularly if a parent is deceased."
The McGuires plan on going back to court after the law goes into effect July 1 (unless vetoed by the governor) to seek visitation rights. If a judge grants the couple visitation rights, they might not have their Friday night visits like they used to, but they could get to see their only grandchildren.
"We're so thankful that God has given us this chance," Katy McGuire said.