Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Dec 19, 2020

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A denial of visitation rights by the custodial parent to a non-custodial parent, absent a change in an existing court order for visitation rights, is illegal. This is true both in situations in which the parents have agreed on a parenting plan outside of court, and in situations in which scheduled visitation has been ordered by the court. The legal phrase for this scenario is called frustration of child visitation rights, and in many states this can be cause to change the court-ordered child custody arrangement and hold the custodial parent in contempt of court.

Can a Custodial Parent Ever Deny Visitation?

Visitation rights are taken seriously by courts, as it is generally felt that it is in the best interest of the child to spend time with both parents. Because of the importance that courts place on the child’s best interest when determining custody arrangements, child visitation rights can rarely, if ever be legally denied by the custodial parent.

The denial of child visitation rights are most commonly thought of as situations in which a custodial parent blatantly refuses to allow the non-custodial parent to see the child. A typical example of this scenario would be when a mother, who has full custody of her son, refuses to let the son get into his father’s car when his father comes to pick him up for his visitation period. However, visitation rights can also be illegally denied in more subtle ways. For example, it is also illegal for a custodial parent to refuse visitation rights on the basis that they don’t like the non-custodial parent’s significant other; the child is sick; the child is visiting relatives; the child is out of town or at another scheduled activity; or for almost any other basis. Further, in cases where there is an emergency just before a scheduled visitation, such as when the child must be taken to the hospital, the noncustodial parent should be notified so that they may visit the child there.

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What if the Non-Custodial Parent is Behind on Support Payments?

Most of the time, the bad acts of a non-custodial parent do not give a custodial parent a legal basis for denying the parent his or her visitation rights. For example, even if the non-custodial parent has defaulted on child support payments, this is not a basis for the custodial parent to deny visitation. Even in cases in which the non-custodial parent is incarcerated, there is generally only a basis to deny visitation where visits are harmful to the child, and this suspension of visitation must still be court-ordered.

If the custodial parent suspects that the non-custodial parent is abusing the child, or putting the child in danger, then the custodial parent should report this immediately, and act through legal venues to get the current visitation rights changed. In these cases, the non-custodial parent will likely be denied visitation by a court order. It is important to know however, that if a custodial parent makes unsubstantiated abuse allegations solely in an effort to deny the noncustodial parent his or her visitation rights, they could risk losing custody to the noncustodial parent.

Another possible scenario is where the custodial parent has reason to believe that the non-custodial parent is drinking or using drugs during visitation periods. If a custodial parent ever suspects that the non-custodial parent is drinking or under the influence when the parent arrives to pick up the children, the custodial parent may want to consider calling the police. However, as with abuse charges, a custodial parent who asserts that the non-custodial parent is under the influence of drugs or alcohol and calls law enforcement should use caution not to make frivolous accusations. If the police arrive and determine that the non-custodial parent is under the influence the custodial parent will have prevented the child from being placed in danger, but if not, the false accusations and trauma caused could be reason for a court to find harassment by the custodial parent or other reason to change the custody arrangement in favor of the non-custodial parent.

When Visitation Rights are Denied

When a noncustodial parent is repeatedly denied his or her rights to visit their child, it is important that the parent document each denial. A good way to document a denial of visitation rights is to file a police report. Filing a police report will ensure that the noncustodial parent has proof of the denial when reported to the court, and will also show the court that the noncustodial parent takes the denial of these rights seriously.

A custodial parent who denies the noncustodial parent his or her visitation rights may be held in contempt of court, and be fined and/or jailed. If the custodial parent has been found to be in contempt of court, the court may also choose to adjust the custody arrangement to make it more favorable to the noncustodial parent by either giving them more visitation rights, or giving them full custody of the child.