Grandparents can bring legal actions to visit their grandchildren in a few situations. If the grandparents have had a falling out with their child and the child's spouse, they might seek a court order to allow them to visit a grandchild. This is difficult, because the parents have a legal right to raise their children as they see fit and the courts in Pennsylvania have limited power to interfere with parental decisions while the family is intact. Grandparents may also seek visitation when their child's relationship breaks up. Once the parents of a child divorce or separate, the courts have a legal right to decide the best interests of the child when there are disputes about visitation. The courts in this situation have more power to allow grandparent visitation.
The question of grandparents' right to visit grandchildren is a fairly recent one and has come about for several reasons. Statistically, grandparents are living longer, staying healthier and often retiring younger. They have leisure time and want to be part of their grandchildren's lives. The divorce rate is also up, which means parents separate and sometimes move far away. In response to this situation, many states have passed laws recognizing the rights of grandparents to visit their grandkids.
In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the statute passed by the state of Washington on grandparents' visitation rights was unconstitutional because it interfered with the rights of parents, if they were fit, to care for and make decisions about their children. In that case the parents were both alive, living together and agreed on denying visitation to the grandparent. Washington and other states, including Pennsylvania, have passed new laws to conform to this decision, but there may still be lawsuits about whether parental rights are being violated
Each state has its own terminology in legal cases, and in Pennsylvania two different terms are used for what is called "visitation" in most other states. Usually visitation means either visiting the child at the home of the custodial parent or taking the child out alone for some activity or to stay with the grandparents. In Pennsylvania, visitation means visiting with the child in the presence of the custodial parent (supervised visitation), and partial custody means being able to visit with the child alone (unsupervised visitation). Laws on grandparents in Pennsylvania also apply to great-grandparents.
If both parents are alive, living together, and refuse to allow a grandparent visitation or partial custody, Pennsylvania courts have no power to overrule the parents' decision under Pennsylvania law except in one circumstance. The exception is when the grandchild has lived with the grandparents for 12 months or longer and the parents have taken the grandchild away. In that case the court will allow visitation or partial custody for grandparents if the court finds that it would be in the best interest of the grandchild, and if the visits with the grandparents will not interfere with the relationship between parent and child. Courts presume visits are good for the child, but may decide that serious animosity between the parents and grandparents could harm the child.
When one of the parents is dead, or the parents are divorced or separated for at least six months (whether or not they were ever married), the courts in Pennsylvania have the power to grant visitation or partial custody rights to grandparents who join a legal action between the parents or file a legal action of their own. The court will always make decisions about visitation and partial custody based on the best interests of the grandchild.