Grandparents play a major role in the lives of their grandchildren, sometimes to the extent that they become surrogate parents. And while a child’s parents are generally presumed to have custodial rights before anyone else, it’s not always in the best interests of the child.
There are cases in which grandparents can petition the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court to assign them physical and legal custody over their grandchildren.
Custody Circumstances & Process
Courts prefer that a child’s parents be the ones to take care of and raise them, and they generally won’t disturb their right to do so. Merely disagreeing with how the child is being raised is not enough for a grandparent to ask the court to grant him or her custody.
But it’s a different situation if the child’s health or safety is at risk, or the parent is otherwise being irresponsible with respect to education, discipline, and other aspects of the child’s life. If a grandparent believes a child is being abused or neglected, he or she may have grounds to ask the court to change custody.
- It starts with filing a petition in the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court to obtain a temporary guardianship over the child. A temporary guardianship entitles the grandparents to take care of the child’s health care, education, finances, physical security, and general well-being. The court will not grant a temporary guardianship unless one of the following applies:
- The parent’s consent. While this may seem unlikely, there actually are cases in which parents who are struggling to care for their children will allow the grandparents to step in for a while. For instance, the child may only have one parent who is battling a drug or alcohol addiction and needs to relinquish custody until completing rehabilitation.
- The parents are found to be unfit. This is the basis for many grandparent petitions for temporary guardianship. Usually, the parents will contest the allegation that they cannot raise their child. The grandparent will then need to present compelling evidence of abuse, neglect, or other indications that the parents are harming the child’s best interests.
- The parents cannot be found. There are unfortunate cases in which, for whatever reason, the parents have abandoned the child and cannot be located. Young children are especially at risk if this happens, so an attorney may be able to quickly get in front of the judge to ask the grandparents to be appointed as guardians.
After the appropriate paperwork is filed and the parents (and sometimes other parties) are notified, the court will set a hearing. The parents can object to the grandparents taking custody of their grandchildren and present their own rebuttal evidence to their claims.
The court may set conditions for when the guardianship will end, although the parents can request that it be terminated early. In some cases, and depending on the circumstances, the grandparents will be granted permanent custody of the children instead. Here again, and despite the word “permanent,” the child’s parents can later ask the court to return custody to them.
If you are granted either a temporary guardianship or permanent custody of your grandchild, you may be eligible for various forms of public assistance as well as free healthcare for the grandchild. If the grandchild’s parents are deceased, the child could be eligible for survivor benefits through Social Security.
Asking the court to permanently or temporarily transfer custody of a grandchild to his or her grandparents is certainly no easy task, but it may very well be necessary to protect the child. You need a determined legal advocate to make the strongest possible case to the judge to assign custody to you.