Grandparents raising grandchildren and child custody

Thank goodness for grandparents. They are proving to be an essential resource for millions of children across the United States. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 4.9 million children are now being raised mainly by grandparents or great-grandparents.

Pennsylvania grandparents' rights

Pennsylvania is no different from the rest of the nation when it comes to the growing numbers of grandparents raising their kids' children. However, Pennsylvania's laws regarding grandparents' rights to custody and visitation with their grandchildren are very specific.

All child custody and visitation decisions in Pennsylvania are based primarily on a court's determination of the child's best interests. This involves weighing a wide range of factors to establish what would be best for the child's physical, emotional, moral, spiritual and intellectual wellbeing. Depending on the circumstances, grandparents may be granted a number of different rights with regard to their grandchildren.

Visitation and partial custody

In some cases, a Pennsylvania court may order visitation rights for a child's grandparents. This means that the grandparent may visit with the child at specified times, but only under the supervision of the child's parent or legal guardian. In other words, the grandparent is not authorized to take the child away from his or her custodian without permission.

In other situations, Pennsylvania grandparents may be granted partial custody of a grandchild. This means that the grandparent is entitled to spend time with the child at specified times, such as on weekends or holidays, but that the child resides primarily with a parent or other legal custodian. When a grandparent has partial custody of a child in Pennsylvania, the grandparent is authorized to take the child away from his or her primary custodian during the specified time periods.

Full legal and physical custody

Pennsylvania law also includes provisions for a grandparent or great-grandparent to be given full legal and physical custody of a child in certain situations. When a grandparent is granted full legal and physical custody of a child in Pennsylvania, he or she will live with the child and care for him or her on a day-to-day basis. In addition, the grandparent will be authorized to make important decisions about the child's care and upbringing, including issues like health care, education and religious instruction.

As with other decisions about child custody and visitation, the court must first determine whether it is in the best interests of the child for the grandparent to have full custody. Before awarding custody, the court also requires that at least one of the following is true:

  • The grandparent has already been acting as a parent for a year or more
  • The grandparent genuinely believes that the parents are afflicted with mental illness or substance abuse, or that there has been neglect or abuse
  • It has been determined that the child lacks proper parental care

Even if a court grants custody to a child's grandparent, it is not necessarily permanent. The child's parent may petition the court to modify the child custody order to regain custody, but the parent must prove it would be in the best interests of the child.

Deciding to take on the care of a child after already raising a family is a big challenge. An experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney can provide guidance and advocacy for grandparents seeking custody of their grandchildren.