Grandparents and other relatives who care for children often face legal issues, whether it's dealing with custody or guardianship, or simply getting a child medical care. These are answers to some frequently asked questions.
See also: GrandFamilies Resources.
What are the options for a formal "legal relationship" with my grandchild?
Since laws regarding grandparent's rights vary from state to state, it is best to contact a family law attorney in your area who can tell you what's best for your situation. If you are the primary caregiver for your grandchild, it may be important to establish some kind of legal relationship. If you don't, the child's parent can take the child from you at any time. What's more, you may have trouble getting medical care for the child or enrolling him in school. In most cases, these are the three key options for a formal legal relationship with a child:
- Custody. This means you are responsible for supporting and providing care for the child. In certain states, a child's parents may still retain some of their rights — even if you have physical custody. A parent can voluntarily relinquish custody of a child to you through a written legal agreement, or it can be formally ordered by the court.
- Guardianship. This designation means that you have the duty to care for a child if he is taken away from his parent (or other legal guardian) by the courts. In some (but not all) states, when someone takes guardianship of a child, a parent loses all his rights. The terms "custody" and "guardianship" can be mean different in different states, so it is important to get the correct facts for where you live.
- Adoption. When you adopt a child, you have all the rights and responsibilities of a biological parent. The birth parents no longer have any rights.
Can I enroll a grandchild in school or get them medical care if I haven't established a legal relationship with the child?
Some states have education and/or medical "consent" laws, which allow caregivers to enroll a child in school or get medical care without having legal custody or guardianship. Medical care may include immunizations, mental health services, well-child check-ups and dental care. In the states with these consent laws, usually the caregiver signs an affidavit (a statement) saying they are caring for the child. In some states, the parent can sign a special form to give you permission to get services for your grandchildren. Check your state's GrandFacts sheets to find out if your state has medical/education consent laws.
Can I get financial help without a legal relationship with my grandchild?
Most public benefits for your grandchildren, such as cash assistance or free/low-cost medical care, do not require you to have custody or guardianship. Most benefits for children do not count the caregiver's income either. But some do, so be sure to talk with the local department of human services or Social Security office or your lawyer to learn about the rules in your state.
What if my grandchild is in "foster care"?
When a child is in foster care (or under the protection of a child welfare system), usually the state has legal custody of the child and caseworkers make all major decisions about him or her. Children in foster care may be placed with families, or in group homes or institutions. In an arrangement known as "kinship care," a child is placed with a relative or a close family friend. When a grandparent becomes a foster parent though kinship care, the grandparent is responsible for the day-to-day decisions and care for the child — though the state retains legal custody and pays for the child's care. Almost all states prefer to place children with a relative or "kin" when they can. If your grandchildren have already been in the legal custody of the state, or if they are being abused or neglected and the state is taking custody of them, you can look into becoming their foster parent and have them placed in your home.