While custody cases usually only contemplate the custody rights of a child's two parents, in some instances in Pennsylvania, the right of custody may also extend to grandparents and other third parties who stand in loco parentis to the child.
In loco parentis is a Latin term that means “in the place of a parent.” For custody purposes, it means that a court can award custody to a third party — other than one of the child's parents — if it determines that is in the best interests of the child.
Notably, Pennsylvania strives to protect the rights of natural parents and protect the nuclear family unit even in cases of divorce. Because of this priority, the standards for establishing in loco parentis are high, and the parent must have had explicitly or implicitly consented to the formation of the third party in loco parentis relationship with the child.
Establishing in Loco Parentis in a Pennsylvania Custody Case
In Pennsylvania, there are two main factors a court will consider when deciding whether a third party is sufficiently in loco parentis to a child to be awarded custody. The first consideration is whether the person has assumed parental status regarding the child. Generally speaking, this means that the third party has put themselves into the position of assuming parental obligations, such as providing food, shelter, clothing, and other support. The second factor considers whether the third party has actually performed these parental duties for the child.
If the court judges that the third party has enjoyed a parent-like relationship with the child based on these factors, it can award custody to that third party. The third party involved in custody proceedings could be any adult, including current or ex-spouses or partners, siblings, other relatives, or even friends or neighbors. The characterization of the relationship in societal terms, then, is irrelevant so long as the third party is in loco parentis to the child.
Grandparents' Custody and Visitation Rights
Grandparents increasingly appear in custody cases, whether to assert custody or visitation rights. Court decisions have made clear that grandparents can establish an in loco parentis relationship to the child just as any other third party. If they are unable to meet that standard, grandparents may pursue a different route to seek custody. In this case, grandparents must prove that they have assumed or are willing to assume responsibility for the child as well as that the grandchild is in any of the following circumstances:
- declared to be a dependent in a juvenile proceeding;
- at risk because of parental abuse, neglect, drug or alcohol use, or incapacity; or
- has lived with the grandparent for at least the past 12 consecutive months and was removed from the home by the parents.
If a grandparent does not meet the above standards for requesting custody, they may still have the standing to sue for partial custody or visitation rights, particularly if they are the parent or even grandparent of a deceased parent of a child.
Custody cases, especially those that involve in loco parentis determinations, can be incredibly complex because of the various priorities involved. If your situation requires clarification of the rights of a third party regarding child custody, you should seek legal advice from an experienced family law attorney immediately. Call Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 to discuss your case today.