Written By: Robert L. Buzzendore, Esquire
Grandparents have custody rights under the law, but they must satisfy the legal requirements to file a custody complaint. Legal standing is the ability to file a complaint. One of the ways grandparents may obtain standing and request custody is if their child (a parent of the grandchild) dies. If grandparents have standing and file a custody action, they must present evidence under the 16 legal custody factors, and the court must consider three additional legal requirements: (1) the amount of personal contact between the child and the party prior to the filing of the custody action; (2) whether an award of custody to grandparents would interfere with any parent-child relationship; and, (3) whether a custody award is in the best interest of the child.
In the recent case of D.R.L. v. K.L.C., 2019 PA Super 229, 1625 WDA 2018, the appeals court denied paternal grandparents additional time with grandchild. Grandparents’ son died in 2016, and even though mother granted substantial time to grandparents, they filed for custody. The grandparents and mother agreed to a custody order with grandparents having partial physical custody every other weekend, certain holidays and 7 days in the summer. Grandparents could also contact the child by telephone at reasonable times.
Grandparents then sought additional time and the trial court gave them an additional week in the summer. Grandparents disagreed with the trial court’s decision and filed an appeal.
Appeals are difficult because ‘abuse of discretion’ by the Trial Court is the standard of review. An ‘abuse of discretion’ is an error of law or a conclusion unsupported by the record. The appeals court must accept findings of the trial court that are supported by competent evidence of record. Moreover, the trial court decides credibility of witnesses.
The Superior Court affirmed the trial court’s decision. Grandparents had the burden “to demonstrate that partial custody or visitation in their favor [was] in the child’s best interest and [would] not interfere with the parent-child relationship.” The trial court issued a thorough analysis of the child’s best interests, and its findings were supported by competent evidence. As a result, there was no abuse of discretion in denying grandparents additional time.
The court reviewed the 16 custody factors and the three additional grandparent custody factors. The main factors in the trial court’s decision were as follows:
- Grandparents already enjoyed frequent and continued contact with grandchild.
- Mother requested the court not to provide additional time because it was interfering with her time with child and the child’s half-sibling. This was an important factor because additional time was interfering with parental time. A parent’s constitutional right is paramount.
- The grandchild’s extended family lived in close proximity and the half-sibling missed the grandchild when she was away.
- Grandchild gave a well-reasoned preference not to have additional time with grandparents because she missed her immediate family.
- Mother did not attempt to turn the grandchild away from grandparents.
- Mother was “more likely to maintain a loving, stable, consistent, and nurturing relationship with the Child for her emotional needs because [mother has been her primary caregiver and has] consistently addressed her basic needs.”
The key factors in this case appeared to be the parent’s rights and the fact grandparents already had a lot of custody time with grandchild with mother’s permission and then through a court order. Grandparents probably were seeking too much at the expense of the mother.
If you have questions about grandparent’s custody rights, whether as a parent or as a grandparent, please contact our York PA law office.