Starting Over: Grandparent Custody in Pennsylvania

By Kris Smull, Family Law Attorney
My experience in the practice of family law and mediation services has shown me that the separation of parents not only impacts the immediate family – parents and children – but it can be equally wrenching for extended family members, especially grandparents.

Depending on the outcome of the custody proceedings, some grandparents feel completely cut out of their grandchildren’s lives while others worry that the children are in danger due to poor parenting by one (or both) parents.

In these cases, grandparents often seek my advice on how they might seek primary custody of their grandchildren. Generally speaking, it can be very difficult for a grandparent to obtain primary custody. The courts have demonstrated that the scales must be heavily tipped in the grandparents’ favor because the law states clearly that grandparenting rights do not supersede the rights of a parent. That does not mean, however, that grandparents cannot seek primary custody. It simply means that to do so they must demonstrate proof that:

• Their relationship with the child began either with the consent of a parent of the child or under a court order; and
• They are willing to assume responsibility for the child; and
• One of the following must also be true;
o The child is a dependent; or
o The child has been in your own care with the consent of the parents or the state for a period of 12 months; or
o The parents are a danger to the child due to abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol abuse or incapacity.

Grandparents who meet these standards can petition for custody, at which time the courts will then examine the 16 factors used for determining custody which were outlined by my colleague, Tom Clark, in his Oct. 13, 2014 blog. Keep in mind, however, that additional factors, such as how the awarding of custody could interfere with the parent/child relationship, are also taken into consideration. As is true in every child custody case, the best interests of the child are always at the forefront of every ruling.

Another option available to grandparents is to seek partial custody or visitation rights. The court may grant visitation if at least one of the child’s parents is deceased, the parents are divorced or separated for more than six months, or the child has lived with the grandparent for more than 12 months.

Seeking custody of a child is not something to be taken lightly. Although it can be extremely difficult to watch a child suffer at the hands of poor parenting, grandparents should never take the law into their own hands and take the child away from their legal custodians. Doing so could put the grandparents at risk of being charged with a crime.

If you are concerned about your grandchildren’s well-being and your rights to protect them, contact us immediately. We are experienced in settling very difficult and contentious family law divorce matters in PA. We can help you, too.

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