What Are Grandparents’ Visitation Rights in Pennsylvania?

Little Girl Visits Grandparents Through glass door

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?

Do Grandparents Have Rights When Parents Say No to Visits?

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.

What Are Grandparents’ Rights in Pennsylvania Courts?

Third-Parties Standing in for Absentee Parents

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:

  • They are presently assuming, or are willing to assume responsibility for the child
  • They have a “sustained, substantial and sincere interest in” the child’s welfare
  • Neither parent is caring for or controlling the child’s upbringing

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 When Parents Have Died

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.

Grandparents’ Rights When Living Arrangements Change

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.

Grandparents’ Rights in Parents’ Custody Battles

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:

  • The relationship between grandparent and grandchild must have started either with the parent’s consent or a court order (such as in dependency cases)
  • The parents must have started a custody proceeding (including a divorce case), and
  • The parents must disagree over whether the grandparents should have custody

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.

Proving Visits with Grandma and Grandpa is What’s Best for Children

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:

  • Grandparent-grandchild relationship historically
  • Child’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing
  • Child’s preferences (if old enough)
  • Schooling & extracurricular concerns
  • Child’s social and intellectual growth

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:

  • Full physical custody -- in cases where both parents are absent, not fit, or surrender custody of the child
  • Partial physical custody -- where grandparents can plan trips and outings with the children themselves
  • Supervised physical custody -- where parents control where visitation happens

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.

Categories: Family Law, Grandparents

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