Do Grandparents Have Visitation Rights in Pennsylvania?

An overview of grandparent visitation laws in Pennsylvania.

In some families, grandparents play a special role in their grandchildren’s lives, but grandparent’s legal rights will almost always be secondary to a parent’s rights. Each state has its own rules governing grandparent visitation rights. This article provides an overview of grandparent visitation in Pennsylvania. If after reading this article you have questions, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

Overview of Grandparent Visitation Laws

A parent’s right to raise a child is has its basis in the U.S. Constitution, which protects a parent’s rights to make educational, medical, and even visitation decisions on a child’s behalf. Typically, if a parent doesn’t want a child to visit with a certain relative or other person, the parent’s wishes will control.

There isn’t a federal grandparent visitation law. Instead grandparent visitation laws vary from state to state. However, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed grandparent visitation rights in the  Troxel v. Granville  case. The  Troxel  case upheld the constitutionality of a broad Washington grandparent visitation law. However,  Troxel  also set guidelines for when courts should award grandparent visitation and when they shouldn’t. Specifically, the  Troxelcase said that grandparent visitation shouldn’t interfere with a parent’s rights. A fit and proper parent is presumed to be acting in a child’s best interests. If a stable parent opposes grandparent visitation, the  Troxel  case requires a court to consider the parent’s objections.

Grandparent Visitation Rights in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania’s Grandparent Visitation Act has withstood constitutional challenges. In Pennsylvania, a grandparent can seek visitation (also called partial custody) if the child’s nuclear family unit is broken. Specifically, a grandparent can file an action for partial custody when:

  • the child’s parent(s) is deceased
  • the child’s parents have been separated for at least six months or have filed a divorce or separation action, or
  • the child has resided with the grandparent for at least 12 months.

Additionally, even if the above factors are present, the grandparent must demonstrate that partial custody or visitation serves the grandchild’s best interests and doesn’t interfere with the child-parent relationship.

In one Pennsylvania case, a set of maternal grandparents was awarded partial custody of their grandchildren. The children’s parents had divorced and the divorce court awarded primary physical custody of the children to the children’s mother. During the ensuing years, the children spent a significant amount of time with their maternal grandparents who lived close by. Tragically, the children’s mother was killed in a car accident, and the maternal grandparents sought partial custody. The court granted the grandparents’ request even though the children’s father objected to visitation. The court reasoned that the grandparents had a strong bond with their grandchildren and the father’s parent-child relationship wouldn’t be harmed by the grandparents’ weekend visits.

By contrast, a grandparent can’t seek visitation if a child’s parents have separated or divorced and then reconciled. Moreover, a court won’t award grandparent visitation if the parent-child relationship is severely harmed by the visits. For example, in one Pennsylvania case, a paternal grandmother’s visitation request was denied. The grandmother had spent little time with the child and had occasionally even refused visits that were offered. The child’s mother and the paternal grandmother had a very stormy relationship. The child’s father had shot the mother and was prevented from any contact with the child as a result, and the grandmother wanted to fill that role. In denying any grandparent visitation, the court reasoned that the grandmother provided little benefit to the child and negatively affected the child’s mother.

When Can a Grandparent Obtain Custody of a Grandchild?

In some circumstances, a grandparent may feel compelled to seek custody of a child who is being neglected or abused by a parent. Pennsylvania law sets forth the circumstances when a grandparent can file an action for custody. Specifically, a grandparent can seek custody when:

  • the grandparent has a relationship with the child that was encouraged by the child’s parent or a result of a court order
  • the grandparent presently assumes custody of the child or is willing to assume custody, and
  • one of the additional conditions is met:
    • the child is a dependent child under the age of 18
    • the child is at a substantial risk of parental neglect, abuse or drug and alcohol abuse, or
    • the child has lived with the grandparent for at least 12 consecutive months.

Even if the grandparent meets the above criteria, a court must determine that awarding custody to a grandparent serves the child’s best interests. Some of the factors a judge will consider when evaluating a child’s best interests, include:

  • the child’s contact with the grandparent prior to the custody filing
  • whether awarding grandparent custody interferes with any parent-child relationship, and
  • whether awarding grandparent custody meets a child’s emotional and physical needs.

In one Pennsylvania case, the court denied a grandmother’s request for primary physical custody of her grandchild. The grandmother alleged that the child’s mother neglected the child’s medical needs and that she was habitually unemployed. The grandmother had visited with and babysat the child during a four-year period. However, the court determined that the grandmother lacked standing to seek custody. Because the child’s mother was not unfit and because the child hadn’t lived with the grandmother, the case was dismissed.

Can a Biological Grandparent Obtain Visitation with a Child That was Placed for Adoption?

Generally, adoption terminates a grandparent’s right to seek custody or visitation with the adopted child. A biological grandparent has no standing to seek visitation with a child that has been placed for adoption, unless the adoption is by a blood relative or a stepparent. Yet, even in the case of stepparent adoption, a court may deny grandparent visitation if the visits put a strain on the stepparent-child relationship.

Grandparents can provide stability and support to both grandchildren and their parents. Grandparents have legal standing to pursue visitation under certain circumstances in Pennsylvania. However, a child’s best interests will dictate the outcome of a grandparent’s request for visitation or custody. If you have additional questions about grandparent visitation or custody rights in Pennsylvania, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

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