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Grandparent visitation bill clears the legislature

Senior Editor Top Stories
Rep. Jackie Toledo

Rep. Jackie Toledo

Florida lawmakers have agreed to create a legal presumption in favor of grandparent and step-grandparent visitation, but only after a tragedy.

The Senate voted 37-0 on March 9 to approve HB 1119 by Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa. Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, sponsored the companion, SB 1408.

“It’s a first step, or a continued step,” Perry said. “We certainly have more work to do, but this is a step in the right direction.”

The measure would establish a rebuttable presumption for grandparent and step grandparent visitation, but only in cases where one parent has been found criminally or “civilly liable for an intentional tort causing the death,” of the other parent.

The presumption could be overcome if the court finds that grandparent visitation is not in the best interest of the child.

An earlier version of the Senate bill would have gone further than the House companion.

It would have given grandparents and step grandparents the ability to intervene in a dependency proceeding once a child has been found dependent and physically removed from the custody of a parent.

That provision was struck, sponsors say, to make the two bills compatible.

Current Florida law, considered among the most restrictive in the nation, allows grandparent visitation, but only when a child’s parents are deceased, missing, or in a “permanent vegetative state,” or if only one parent is deceased, missing, or in a “permanent vegetative state,” and the other has been convicted of a violent felony.

Even then, the grandparent must establish that the surviving parent is unfit and poses a significant danger to the child.

Sponsors refer to the measure as the “Markel Act,” in honor of slain FSU Law Prof. Dan Markel, who was shot to death in the driveway of his Tallahassee home in 2014 in what investigators determined was a murder-for-hire plot. The tragedy turned Markel’s parents into grandparent visitation advocates after they were denied access to Markel’s two sons. They support the legislation.

In 2020, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, sponsored similar legislation, SB 1886. It died in the Judiciary Committee.

The latest version of the bill enjoyed enthusiastic bipartisan support.

Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Ft. Lauderdale thanked Perry for the legislation, noting that social services committees have been working on the proposal for several years.

“It’s going to be a wonderful thing for families across the state of Florida,” Book said.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Lady Lake, quipped that “this is the best deal we’ve got going all session.”

“At the end of the day, many of us got more character development from our grandparents than any other person,” he said.

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