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In many families, grandparents are the ones keeping things together. When a child’s parents have substance abuse or developmental challenges, or are simply missing, grandparents are often the ones who pick up the slack. But when grandparents’ access to their grandchildren gets cut off, is there anything the courts can do about it? What are grandparents’ visitation rights in Pennsylvania?
Generally speaking, grandparents and great-grandparents don’t have the right to overrule parents’ constitutional right to control their children’s upbringing. (This blog will include great-grandparents in the category of grandparents from now on for easy reading.) If both parents agree that visitation isn’t in a child’s best interests, the Pennsylvania courts are not going to second-guess that decision except in cases of abuse, neglect, or dependency. However, in many other cases, Pennsylvania law does give grandparents “standing” -- or authority -- to file a petition for visitation in family court.
When parents are too young, facing mental health or substance abuse challenges, or are developmentally disabled, it often falls to grandparents to step in. There is nothing special about the blood-relationship between grandparent and grandchild in these cases. Pennsylvania law allows any third party to file a petition for custody if:
In deciding whether third-party custody is appropriate in these cases, the Pennsylvania family court will consider the nature, quality, extent, and duration of the connection between the person filing for custody and the child.
Grandparents’ rights go beyond those of other third parties, though. For example, when the grandparent’s child has died, they can seek custody of that child’s children even where the other parent is still involved in their grandchildren’s lives.
In other cases, a grandchild may have lived with their grandparents, either alone or with their parent, while that parent got their life together. If a child lived with their grandparents for 12 consecutive months and then the parent removed the child, grandparents have the right to seek partial physical custody from the Pennsylvania family court. But this right doesn’t last long. The request for visitation must be filed within 6 months of the child’s removal.
Since 2018, grandparents have also had the right to intervene and protect their visitation rights when parents go to court over custody. This new grandparents’ rights law has several parts that must all be satisfied to give grandparents standing:
To understand what this looks like, consider this example. Mary and David have two children. For years, Mary’s parents, Anne and Bart, provided child care and took the children on vacations without their parents. But then, Mary and David’s relationship fell apart. David filed for divorce. The next summer, while their divorce is still pending, David refused to let Anne and Bart take the children on vacation. Mary doesn’t want to file a motion because the divorce is already hard enough. Under this new statute, Anne and Bart can file their own motion for partial custody, asking the court to overrule David and let them take the children on vacation.
However, it’s not enough to just be a grandparent to be awarded grandparenting time or partial custody. The court must be convinced that partial custody is in the children’s best interest. This is often based on factors like the:
The law also requires the court to decide if the party or anyone in their household poses a threat of harm to the child. If there is no risk of harm and it is in the child’s best interest, the court can grant grandparents:
The level of custody that is appropriate will depend on the entire family’s circumstances and could depend on how well the parents and grandparents can get along after court is over.
Grandparents’ rights cases aren’t easy. If you have questions about grandparents’ rights or need to ask the court for custody of your grandchild, you need the help of an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney. We will talk to you about your rights, standing issues, and your family’s circumstances to see whether you can file for partial custody in the Pennsylvania courts. We invite you to contact us to schedule a consultation about your grandparents’ visitation case today.
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