Citation. Groves v. Clark, 1999 MT 117, 294 Mont. 417, 982 P.2d 446, 56 Mont. St. Rep. 490 (Mont. May 28, 1999)
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Brief Fact Summary.
Birth and adoptive parents contracted to have continued visitation between the adopted child and the birth mother. The adoptive parents refused to abide by the agreement, and the birth mother sought specific performance.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
Visitation agreements between birth and adoptive parents are enforceable so long as continued visitation is in the best interests of the child.
Groves signed a document terminating her rights to L.C. when L.C. was 3, relinquishing custody to Lutheran Social Services (LSS) and consenting to adoption. Groves and the Clarks signed a written visitation agreement providing that Groves would have unrestricted visitation so long as she gave the Clarks 2 days notice; that Groves would have unrestricted telephone contact; and that she would have the right to take L.C. out of school in the event that she had to go to Butte for some emergency. The agreement was drafted by LSS and neither party consulted an attorney before signing. In February 1994 the court terminated Groves’ parental rights and awarded custody of L.C. to LSS. In September 1994 the Clarks legally adopted L.C. Groves and the Clarks abided by the agreement until June 5, 1995, when Groves notified the Clarks that she wanted to take L.C. to Butte for the weekend and the Clarks refused. They told Groves that she was welcome to visit L.C. in their home, but coul
d not take her on extended out-of-town trips. Groves sought specific performance of the agreement, and the Clarks objected, moving for summary judgment. The court denied Groves’ petition, finding the agreement void and unenforceable. The Supreme Court reversed, holding that birth and prospective adoptive parents are free to contract for visitation, and trial courts must give effect to the contracts when the continued visitation is in the best interests of the child. The Court remanded for a hearing on whether enforcement of the agreement would be in the best interests of the L.C.
Did the court err in its determination that the visitation agreement was enforceable because continued visitation was in the best interests of the child?
The court’s finding that continued visitation was in the best interest of L.C. was not clearly erroneous.
The court found that a bond existed between Groves and L.C. and it was likely L.C. would suffer from issues of abandonment unless appropriate visitation was granted. The court found that continued visitation was in L.C.’s best interest, and granted Groves unsupervised monthly weekend visitation with L.C., requiring the parties to share the transportation costs. The court granted her telephone contact at least weekly, and recommended the parties seek adoption counseling to agree on future visitation modifications.
The Clarks assert that the adoptive parents’ wishes are paramount in deciding if the agreement should be enforced. Montana law provides that whether a post-adoption visitation agreement is enforceable is decided pursuant to best interests analysis, with the adoptive parents’ wishes being only one factor.
The Clarks are also incorrect in their argument that the court did not adequately consider and evaluate the evidence in applying the best interests standard. The Clarks testified that visitation adversely affected L.C. because afterwards she would evidence insecurity about her adoption status, would be moody, and difficult to discipline. The Groves’ expert explained that this was a natural occurrence, and this Court finds it highly likely that L.C. will suffer from issues of abandonment, identity, and grieving unless appropriate visitation is granted. The evidence suggested that visitation was a happy experience for L.C.
The Clarks also assert that the evidence did not support a finding that a bond existed between Groves and L.C. The Court rejects this argument because Groves and L.C. were together for the first 3 years of L.C.’s life. The Court also rejects the Clarks concerns that they do not know the details of the visitations, what L.C. will be doing, with whom she will be associating, and her sleeping arrangements because they were not presented to the District Court.
Finally the Clarks argue that the court erred in modifying sua sponte the terms of the original agreement. This Court agrees that the court had the discretion in determining the best interests of L.C. to modify the agreement.
The Court found that enforcement of visitation agreements between birth and adoptive parents are enforceable so long as they are in the best interests of the child, that the wishes of the adoptive parents are not paramount in such determinations, and that the courts may modify such agreements if the best interests of the child so require.