Pennsylvania Supreme Court Limits Grandparent Rights in Custody Cases
Pennsylvania law allows grandparents standing (capacity to sue) to file for periods of partial custody of their grandchildren in specific situations. Pennsylvania domestic relations laws stipulate a list of circumstances when grandparents can file for custody. Prior to September of 2016, one of those circumstances included if the parents of the minor child were separated for six months or more. If the parents decided to live separately for at least six months, that fact alone created a window for grandparents to insert themselves in the case and petition for their own periods of custody.
The original intent of the Courts and the Legislature for allowing this window was the concern that if a family was no longer intact, it was more likely that one parent could restrict the other parent’s family from having significant contact with the minor child. While that concern may be reasonable, this window allowed grandparents to involve themselves in custody cases simply due to the separation of the parents, even in situations where the parents were successfully co-parenting.
In the recent case of D.P. v. G.J.P., 146 A.3rd 204 (2016), Paternal Grandparents filed a complaint in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas (county court) seeking periods of partial physical custody with their grandchild. While the parents had separated, both parents were in agreement that the minor children were to have no contact with Paternal Grandparents. The only basis for standing in this case was that the parents had been separated for over six months. The parents filed a motion to dismiss the paternal grandparents’ petition, asserting that the law conferring standing to the grandparents based merely on the separation of the parents was a violation of their 14th amendment rights of due process and equal protection.
Courts have long held that parents’ right to control the way in which their children are raised is a fundamental right and as such, is protected by the United States Constitution. The Court of Common Pleas agreed with the parents and found that the law in question violated their constitutional rights. The Court went on to find that the mere fact that parents are separated, should not be enough to overcome the presumption that, “fit parents will act in their children’s best interest.”
This matter was appealed directly to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review if the Grandparents Statute was invalid as written. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Common Pleas and found that the law allowing grandparents standing to file for custody based solely on parent’s separation is a violation of their constitutional rights since it treats parties differently based on whether they are an intact couple or not. The law as written infringes on parents’ fundamental rights without a compelling state interest to do so.
As a result of D.P. v. G.J.P., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated the provision in the Grandparents Statute that allowed standing based solely on the separation of the parties. The balance of the law remains in effect and allows grandparents to file for custody should they meet any of the other provisions in the Statute.
Attorney Kellie Rahl-Heffner counsels families in matters relating to child custody, divorce, legal separation, guardianship, and other family law matters.