What Rights Do Grandparents Have With Their Grandchildren?

A grandparent's relationship with a grandchild is important to both of them. That relationship can be disrupted if the grandchild's parents separate. But since the legal system is primarily concerned with the child's best welfare, it recognizes the importance of a child's relationship, not only with a parent, but also a grandparent. While a parent's relationship with the child is viewed as especially important by the law, a grandparent's relationship is also legally protected.

The Pennsylvania statutes governing parental and grandparent, including great grandparent, rights uses the term custody, which includes both time spent with the child (physical custody) and decision-making for the child (legal custody). Both physical and legal custody can be primary, shared, partial or, in less frequent circumstances, exclusive or supervised by a third party. What is commonly referred to as child visitation is called partial physical custody in legal terms. A grandparent has the right to seek any of the forms of physical and/or legal custody of the grandchild in certain situations.

A grandparent may seek a court order for partial physical custody (visitation) of the grandchild under the following circumstances:

  • The grandchild's parent (who is the child of the grandparent) is deceased;
  • The parents of the grandchild have been separated for a period of at least six months or have commenced and continued a divorce proceeding; or
  • The grandchild has resided with the grandparent for at least 12 consecutive months and is later removed from the grandparent's home by the parents. In this case, the grandparent must start legal action within 6 months.

A grandparent may seek a court order for greater rights with the grandchild, both physical and legal custody, if the grandparent has been acting as the parent of the grandchild, known as having "in loco parentis" status.

Even where a grandparent is not recognized as being "in loco parentis" to the child, the grandparent may seek both physical and legal custody of the grandchild when the grandparent's relationship with the grandchild began with the consent of a parent or under a court order and one of the following conditions is present:

  • The grandchild has been determined to be a dependent child;
  • The grandchild is substantially at risk due to parental abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol abuse or incapacity; or
  • The grandchild has resided with the grandparent for at least 12 consecutive months and is later removed from the home by the parents.

All situations are fact specific and for that reason, unique. In the eyes of the legal system, the right of a grandparent to be involved with a grandchild depends a great deal on the grandparent's past and ongoing relationship with the grandchild. When disputes over custody reach court, the primary concern of the court is the grandchild's welfare and best interests. Sometimes, the adults involved in a custody struggle lose sight of this, but the court will not.

Grandparents should consult with a knowledgeable and experienced divorce and child custody lawyer for advice. Contact our experienced divorce and custody attorneys for more information.