As a general rule, grandparents are not required to pay child support for their grandchildren. However, certain circumstances may create a situation where this rule does not apply. Parents, both biological and adoptive, have a duty to support their children. When one parent is unable or unwilling to support their child, the duty may fall to the grandparents under certain state laws.
Grandparents who stand in loco parentis to their grandchildren (basically standing in place of parents and raising the children as their own) are considered to be responsible for the care of the child. In occasions where the grandparents divorce, child support can be ordered as part of the divorce decree.
Under a little-known provision of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, also known as the Welfare Reform Act, states are encouraged (although not required) to have processes in place for child support orders to be enforced against grandparent. This is true even if the child is not being raised by the grandparents. Under this law, grandparents may be held liable for child support payments if the custodial parent is a minor and receives government support payments.
Generally, grandparents may be liable to pay child support or care for their grandchild if:
- The child’s parents are minors;
- The parents can prove that they are unable to support the child;
- The grandparents have custody of the child and are in fact parenting the child; or
- One parent cannot be found but their parents (the grandparents) can be found.
States where grandparents may be required to pay for the support of their grandchildren include:
- New Hampshire;
- North Carolina;
- Rhode Island;
- South Carolina;
- South Dakota;
- Wisconsin; and
Some states, like Maryland and North Carolina, may also extend responsibility for child support to the parents of the custodial parent, as well as the parents of the noncustodial parent.
Each state has its own rules on how to determine whether a parent is unable to support their children. However, it can be difficult for parents to prove this. It is not enough to prove that the parent has a low income. Rather, the parent must prove that they are so destitute that they lack the resources to provide for a child’s basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clothes.
Custody orders depend largely on the circumstances of the individual case. However, it is possible for a court to award custody to grandparents rather than just holding grandparents responsible for child support payments. Depending on the circumstances, though, this may be an uphill battle.
Most courts prefer that children live with their parents, and make every attempt possible to keep the nuclear family together. However, a grandparent may be able to gain custody in certain situations.
For example, a grandparent may be awarded custody of their grandchild if:
- The child’s parents are deceased;
- The child’s parents have been deemed unfit to have custody;
- The child’s parents consent to grandparent custody; or
- The child has lived with the grandparent for a year or more.
In all child custody cases, the court will determine the outcome based on what is in the best interests of the child. Some factors that the court may consider in the case include the child’s degree of contact with the grandparent before the custody petition was filed, the child’s relationship with other blood relatives, and the grandparent’s age, health, and ability to take care of and support the child.
It really depends on the circumstances of the case and the rules of the state you live in. In cases where financial dependency and child support are at issue, grandparents may have certain specially-recognized custody rights. Common instances where grandparents are more likely to succeed at securing visitation rights include:
- The child’s parents have been separated for at least six months, or are divorced;
- The child’s best interests are served by granting the grandparent partial custody or visitation rights;
- The child has lived with a grandparent for at least a year with the consent of a parent; or
- A birth parent has died.
It is also important to keep in mind that a grandparent will need to petition the court for any specific child visitation schedule.
Child support issues can get very complicated very quickly, and family issues are almost always emotionally charged. It is in your best interests to contact an experienced family law attorney for advice regarding your specific situation.
Your attorney can help you talk through the circumstances of your case. They can also advise you about the best way to proceed, answer any specific questions you might have, and help to protect your rights in court.