In today’s world, the traditional family structure continues to change and now takes many different forms. Unfortunately, many grandparents have been faced with becoming the primary custodian of their grandchildren when parents become unavailable to raise their children due to mental health, addiction, abuse, incarceration or other issues. Grandparents are bearing the financial burden of raising their grandchildren in their golden years and while on a fixed income. However, when a grandparent is caring for or has been awarded custody of their grandchild, they have the right to seek child support from the parents.
Under the Pennsylvania Code, parents have a statutory duty to financially support their children. Parents are liable for the support of their children who are unemancipated and 18 years of age or younger, and in certain circumstances, may even be liable for the support of their children who are more than 18 years of age. A grandparent that has custody of a grandchild or is caring for the child, regardless of whether a court order has been issued granting custody, may commence a support action on behalf of the grandchild seeking child support from the parents.
The Pennsylvania Code does not impose a statutory duty on grandparents, as non-parents, to financially support their grandchildren. However, as the traditional family structure continues to evolve, the Court has been faced with support claims asserted against grandparents having custody.
In 2015, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that a stepparent who aggressively litigated for custody of the biological children of his former spouse, who was a fit mother, and who took affirmative legal steps to assume the same parental rights as a biological parent, would likewise assume parental obligations including the payment of child support. This Supreme Court decision finding a non-parent’s obligation to pay child support has been relied on to argue a support obligation of a grandparent in cases involving support claims asserted between two grandparents having custody but living in separate households and in cases where the grandparents have actively litigated for custody.
While the Court has struggled with addressing the various fact scenarios presented, the Court has continued to determine that the grandparents in these cases did not to have a duty to financially support the grandchild. The Court relied primarily on the lack of statutory duty. The Court also recognized the potential impact of requiring a grandparent who steps in to act as custodian of a grandchild when their parents are unable to properly care for them, and the possible reluctance to take on that role when also required to assume the financial responsibility of child support. Even in a recent case involving custody litigation between divorcing grandparents, the Court found no duty to support by the grandparent existed because the grandparents had assumed custody from the parents due to their unavailability and no action was taken to terminate the rights of the parents.
If you are involved in a custody or support action, it is important to consult with a family law attorney knowledgeable with the Pennsylvania Code to ensure that you fully understand your rights.
The opinions expressed in this article are for general information purposes only and are not intended to provide specific legal advice or recommendations. Ashley B. Stitzer handles a variety of divorce, custody, alimony/support, marital agreements and other family law matters ranging from mediating small disputes to complex litigation. To schedule a consultation, contact Ashley B. Stitzer at (610) 840-0243 or [email protected].