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The Rights of Grandparents

Learn what rights grandparents and step-grandparents have with their grandchildren.

The Rights of Grandparents

Grandparents don't have a lot of legal rights, though they do have a few. In all states, the courts can grant visitation rights to grandparents (Grands, your partner's parents, or Other Grands, your partner's ex's parents). But just because they petition doesn't mean they will win—it's gotta be in the best interest of the child. Sometimes the grandparents have to prove that they have a deep and lasting relationship with the grandchild. Sometimes they'll gain visitation if the child lived with them for a while. And sometimes the courts will turn them down, saying that recognizing their rights would compromise the parents' rights of choosing with whom their kids can associate.

Stepping Stones

Step-Grands must be explicit in their wills if they want their step-grandchildren to inherit from them after their death.

Here's the scoop on the Other Grands' rights when their grandkids are adopted by a stepparent: Normally stepparent adoption cuts off all ties between the adopted child and their biological family, and that includes the Other Grands. The courts have granted visitation rights to Other Grands in stepparent adoption in many, but by no means all cases. Other Grands have the best chance for visitation when the stepparent adoption follows the death of their child and parent of the grandchild (rather than relinquishment or abandonment).

Occasionally custody fights ensue between grandparents and parents, usually in the case of abandonment. Sometimes, when neither parent is able to take care of a child, a custody fight between grandparents occurs.

The Grandparent During Divorce

Grandparents are commonly called upon to bail out the parents during a divorce by taking care of the kids. In tumultuous times, grandparents can provide an anchoring influence. But many times, that anchor is dislodged when the parent remarries and reclaims the child.

When the child moves from Grandma and Grandpa's house to the new household with her parent and new stepparent, the grandparents can easily feel displaced or unappreciated. If you're the stepparent in a situation like this, be aware that the Other Grands may take out their hostility on you. Make sure that you and your partner express your appreciation and your respect for them. Your job is to build bridges, not burn them.

I Kid You Not!

More than three million children in the United States live with their grandparents or other kin, not their parents.

The Grandparent as Stepparent

Frequently, grandparents are becoming stepparents to their children's children if the parent is too young to be a responsible, full-time parent. Often it happens when a parent wants to give up a child for adoption and the grandparent will have none of it. Other times, a parent gets into trouble with drugs or crime and can't take care of the child.

Stepping Stones

The Grandparent Information Center, a division of The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), puts out a newsletter called Parenting Grandchildren: A Voice for Grandparents. You can contact them at 202-434-2296.

Grandparents who stepparent their grandchildren have extra complications:

  • The relationship with their own kids is often damaged, strained, or nonexistent. Many grandparents don't want (or else actively fear) contact or involvement from the birth parent. Some long for it and don't have it and must then grieve for their child as they would grieve for a death.
  • There's little legal assistance for relatives who take on a relative's children.
  • Grandparents may also have health complications due to age. (Chasing a toddler when you've got arthritis is no walk in the park.)
  • Resentment comes with the territory. It's hard to raise a whole new family when you expected to be finished with such responsibilities by now.

The Step as Grandparent

When a stepparent becomes a step-grandparent, things often shift for the better. A new baby tends to bring a family together anyway, and when your stepkids have children, they often gain a sudden understanding of how challenging stepparenting (indeed, parenting of any kind) can be. All of a sudden, you might get a little appreciation. There's a tremendous amount of joy when a baby begins to recognize you.

If there's an unusual age difference between child and grandparent, the little one won't even realize it. When Ami was 31, her step-granddaughter Colleen was born. Ami has no children of her own, but at an age when most of her friends are answering to “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!,” Ami is answering to “Grandma!” Colleen doesn't understand that her Grandma is younger than her mother—and for Colleen at age 6, it wouldn't matter if she did know. Anybody over age 18 is a senior citizen for a child!

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