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State Supreme Court limits grandparents' rights

In Pennsylvania, grandparents' rights to custody and visitation of their grandchildren are specific and limited. The state Supreme Court, in a recent decision, further undercut these rights when it ruled that part of the state's grandparent visitation law was unconstitutional. In D.P. v. G.D.P., the Court struck down the provision that gave grandparents the legal ability to sue for custody merely because the children's parents were separated for at least six months.

The Court reviewed the case of parents who were separated and who were preparing to file for their divorce. They agreed to a custody arrangement and to discontinue the children's contact with their paternal grandparents. Two years later, the grandparents filed a legal action against the parents seeking partial custody, but did not claim that they were unfit parents.

The Supreme Court agreed with lower court rulings that the law allowing grandparents custody violated the parents' constitutional rights and could not be justified. It rejected arguments that a six-month separation meant that the marriage functionally dissolved and that the grandparents, accordingly, had the legal right to commence a lawsuit for custody.

Pennsylvania does have an interest in safeguarding children from physical and emotional harm and with protecting their well-being. This protection, according to the Court, helps ensure that children do not lose beneficial relationships with their grandparents.

Typical parental decision-making does not collapse, however, where parents did not seek court involvement in their family, and the parents can agree on denying grandparent visitation. A six-month separation does not upset the presumption that parents can be trusted to make decisions on the family members that can have relationships with their children.

This presumption may be overridden to protect the best interest of the child. The circumstances of this case, though, underlines the importance of protecting the parents from litigation based upon the grandparent's ability to sue in court just because of a six-month separation.

Custody and visitation issues may be complex and lead to lengthy litigation. Legal representation can help resolve these disputes and protect rights when these cases go to court.

Source: Verdict, "Limits on grandparent visitation: The continuing ripples of Troxel v. Granville," By Joanna L. Grossman, Sept. 27. 2016

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