HBO’s Big Little Lies put a plethora of family law issues at the forefront of last Sunday’s episode, expertly woven into the storyline of the incomparable Meryl Streep v. the only person who could take her down: Nicole Kidman [spoilers ahead].
Season two has zeroed in on Streep’s desire to get to the bottom of her son’s death, and what’s more, obtain custody of her two grandchildren.
Grandparent rights to custody or even visitation of their grandchildren are very limited. When a grandparent does want to obtain custody, they have essentially two options:
1.) a guardianship petition, or
2.) a request for visitation.
Guardianships can give a grandparent (or another relative, or even non-relative) physical custody of the child. It requires a showing that a child was in danger, or unsafe for some reason in a parent’s care. It is the proceeding we see Streep file in Season 2, Episode 5.
Grandparents may also be granted reasonable visitation rights under other limited circumstances. If, for example, either parent of a minor child is deceased, certain relatives may be granted visitation rights upon a finding that the visits would be in a child’s best interest [Family Code 3101]. Clearly, Streep would qualify under this provision as well. A key distinction here would be custody versus visitation. A guardianship proceeding can lead to full custody of the children, whereas a request for visitation can only lead to visits.
We can’t predict the outcome of the ensuing Streep v. Kidman showdown. But there are other lessons here, a main one being trust and open communication with your attorney. We see Kidman frequently frustrated with her attorney, who has a clear strategy that Kidman cannot understand. She hears Streep presenting a sympathetic and emotional argument but her attorney won’t let her speak, telling her Streep “can’t win unless they establish you as unhinged. We will not give them that.” Generally good advice in a custody battle, we learned it was excellent advice after seeing Kidman explode in a later meeting.
The last, and perhaps most important, lesson of the episode came with Kidman being quite honest with her children about their grandmother’s desire to take them from her. She went so far as to coach her children to tell the evaluator how they want to live with their mom. Any good family law attorney will caution you to keep your children out of litigation. More importantly, never tell them what to say. Not only will they appear coached, having a negative effect on your case, but it can be seriously psychologically damaging to put children in the middle of two people they love, whether it’s a parent and grandparent, or two parents.
As a family law attorney, it can be fun to see our profession portrayed in the media. Litigation can make for dramatic television. But it’s important to remember that what you see on TV isn’t real life. It’s probably safe to say you shouldn’t follow Kidman’s strategy thus far, but before you embark on a litigation strategy of your own, consult a family law attorney to help you decide what’s right for you.