Do Grandparents Have Legal Rights to Their Grandchildren?

a sad grandfather using his computer

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You might think there should be some kind of link between how much you care for a child and the amount of control you have over their life and your relationship with them. But many grandparents find out to their sorrow that no such correlation exists in the case of their grandchildren, at least not legally speaking. Instead, almost all of the control is in the hands of the parents.

Most of the time, that arrangement works out well. The parents call the shots, and the grandparents get to have the fun. But when parents and grandparents become estranged that pattern can quickly unravel. When parents make questionable decisions and the grandparents try to intervene, they are typically turned away, leaving them to ask, "Don't grandparents have any legal rights?"

It's a very good question. Ultimately, the answer is often a surprise and disappointment to many concerned grandparents, as their legal rights are limited at best.

Parental Rights Are Strong

Most of the time, parents have the right to make decisions about their children. In cases that meet the legal definition of abuse or neglect, children may be removed from a home, and only if and when concerns over the child's homelife are addressed, may the child be returned to their parents' care, as reunification is normally the goal. In almost every other scenario, however, parents retain control of their children, even when they make questionable decisions. If children are not at serious risk of harm, parental decisions are usually allowed to stand.

Substance misuse tops the list of reasons why children are removed from their homes. Still, many times children are left in a home with a parent with a substance use disorder because the allegations of misuse can't always be proven or because the parent's use is not considered to be a danger to the children.

While grandparents may feel that they could provide a better environment for their grandchildren and that they could make better parenting decisions, it usually doesn't matter from a legal standpoint. Unless the children are removed from the home by child protective services, grandparents aren't in the running to take over.

When Grandchildren Need a New Home

If grandchildren are considered at risk and removed from their homes, grandparents have the right to be notified. The 2008 federal Fostering Connections Act states that adult relatives must be identified and notified and also given the right to participate in decisions about what happens to the children.

If they want to take over care of the children, grandparents may be treated much the same as other foster parents. In addition, grandparents can seek custody, but in most cases, they will not automatically be given any special consideration. Their petition will often be treated similarly to any other third-party petition for custody. If the grandparents win the right to take care of their grandchildren, the custody arrangement can take several different forms, including physical custody with power of attorney, as foster parents, or full legal custody.

What About Grandparent Visitation Rights?

Grandparent visitation is different from custody. All states of the United States have addressed grandparent visitation in state law. In Canada, six provinces and one territory have legalized grandparents' visitation rights, and grandparents can still sue as interested parties in the other areas.

Numerous organizations have sprung up worldwide to help promote the rights of grandparents, including Grandparents Rights Advocates National Delegation of the United States (GRAND USA), Alienated Grandparents Anonymous Canada, and Bristol Grandparents Support Group in the United Kingdom. Others provide networks of support, such as Alienated Grandparents Anonymous Incorporated (AGA, Inc.).

It's important to note, however, that just because an area has laws supporting grandparent visitation, not all grandparents have the standing to file suit, and suits are expensive and hard to win. Additionally, parental rights and decisions often trump a grandparent's requests. Even after a suit is won, it can be difficult to get a grandparent visitation order enforced. In spite of the difficulties involved, many grandparents each year make the decision to file suit to maintain visitation with their grandchildren.

Staying Involved Is Key

If you are ever put in the position of seeking custody or visitation, you will be on stronger ground if you have maintained robust ties with your grandchildren. If you think that you might ever face this situation, it's not too early to start documenting your relationship with your grandchildren as well as your concerns about their home environment.

Sometimes parents prevent grandparents from bonding with grandchildren. Parents can do this because their parental rights are so strong, as is their influence and control over their children. If this is your situation, you should document your attempts to develop a relationship with your grandchildren. Additionally, try finding other ways to connect with your grandchildren besides in-person visits, such as writing letters or sharing photos.

Your Relationship With Your Adult Children

Considering the unfavorable state of grandparents' legal rights, the wisest course of action is to maintain good relationships with the parents of your grandchildren. Unfortunately, that's not always possible. However, when feasible, mending fences with estranged adult children is a worthwhile effort for all involved.

A Word From Verywell

Grandparents may have a love for their grandchildren that feels very much like parental love, but in the eyes of the law, it falls short. If you try but are unable to regain access to your grandchildren, either through legal or personal avenues, take heart in knowing that you're not alone. Sadly, strained parent-child-grandchild relationships are a common occurrence. But don't give up hope. Sometimes, when you keep trying, you'll eventually work out a way to see your grandchildren again.

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  1.  Child Welfare Information Gateway. Parental Substance Use and the Child Welfare System. Published October 2014.

  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-351).

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