HBO's Big Little Lies does not shy away from difficult, cringe-worthy topics, including rape, domestic abuse, marital infidelity, and a possible murder. In the latest episode "She Knows," (spoiler ahead, in case you haven't seen it yet) one more doozy is added to the mix: a potential custody battle. Towards the end of the episode, doting yet suspicious grandmother Mary Louise begins court proceedings against Celeste to try and take her boys away from her, which begs the question, what legal rights do grandparents have to their grandchildren? Could this happen in real life? Additionally, what rights would Mary Louise potentially have to try and form some kind of relationship with Ziggy? Could Jane block her from seeing Ziggy, if she felt it necessary? And have I mentioned how much I love the drama on this show?
While Mary Louise's actions may seem especially harsh and vindictive, and she has clearly moved to Monterey with the intent of finding out exactly what happened to her son, she may not be without a case here. After all, she has seen the large variety of pills in Celeste's medicine cabinet, witnessed the aftermath of her Ambien-induced car accident, and been on the receiving end of the slap heard 'round the world. Celeste has not exactly been Mother of the Year lately, but then again, she is still dealing with the loss of her husband, a man she loved despite the fact that he beat her repeatedly. The word "complicated" does not even begin to scratch the surface of that relationship. But, would Mary Louise actually have a case if this happened in real life?
In an interview with Romper, Randall M. Kessler, a family and divorce attorney, author and professor in Atlanta, Georgia, says, "Grandparents are facing an uphill battle in a custodial fight for a grandchild, in the event they believe the child is being mistreated in some way. While every state's laws are different, parents are always going to have the upper hand. Every court will ask, 'What is in the best interest of the child?' and that answer is always to be with their natural parents."
Kessler adds, "First, a lawyer would have to prove that the parent is unfit. Do they have the ability to raise their own child? Is there clear and convincing evidence that a child is being abused or neglected in some way? If the court did find convincing evidence, a child advocate would be appointed to look at the case further. And even if everything went according to plan, so to speak, it is not guaranteed that the grandparent would receive custody."
Regarding Mary Louise and Big Little Lies, Kessler continues, "There are cases when grandparents can achieve rights, but the facts have to be very very unique and you must also have a willing judge. The facts on the show would lead me to believe it would be a very uphill battle in most courts."
In regards to a real life situation similar to Mary Louise's interest in fostering a relationship with Ziggy, Kessler would not recommend bringing the legal system into it. A grandparent would have no rights to a child they've only just come to realize is their grandchild. Instead, and this seems obvious, Kessler suggests extending an olive branch. Offer a friendship first and the option to help out financially. A parent may choose not take them up on it, but at least an attempt has been made in a positive way. And maybe, in the case of Big Little Lies, don't try and take her friend's children away from their mother. I don't see how that is going to help Mary Louise with Ziggy at all. The drama continues again on Sunday...