We have done a lot of complaining lately about some pretty bizarre cases. Then, along comes Schultz v. Schultz and Passetti; an important case that merits being published because it makes important law and is a credit to the litigants and the courts. Suffice to say those accolades don’t much occur in the litigation world generally, but the child custody world especially.

The facts also reflect a new trend in affordable housing, called Grandma’s. It used to be we went to Grandma’s on Thanksgiving largely because there was turkey and the “Horse knew the way to carry the sleigh.” But in a world where housing is scarce and expensive and many young couples are struggling with job insecurity and addiction, Grandma’s has become a habitation of choice even after the all the turkey and fixins are digested.

The spin in this case is that the newborn child came home from the hospital in December, 2015 and moved into a home owned by Grandma.  

So, here was the arrangement. Mom and Dad paid no rent but Granny did insist they cover the utilities and the taxes. Then, as now often happens, after eight years a fight erupted and the parents packed up with M.S. and moved on. Grandma sued asserting she was en loco parentis. The departure and the custody action occur in early 2023. The parents file preliminary objection asserting that Granny lacks standing. Whether the court made them do it or the parties decided to save money and time, there was a stipulation of what occurred during the eight years. Those facts, neatly summarized by the Luzerne County judge were:

  1. Grandma did the drop offs and school pickups.
  2. Grandma did the medical and dental appointments.
  3. Grandma provided limo service to M.P.’s social appointments (i.e., kid birthdays) and activities.
  4. Grandma did homework with M.P.
  5. Grandma joined the local library so that M.P. could study there.
  6. Grandma provided after school care daily from 3-5:00 PM.
  7. Grandma subsidized tuition and daycare expense to the tune of $800/month and paid for food and extracurriculars when the child was with her.
  8. M.P. stayed with his Grandma three weekends per month during the school year and it seems he “summered” at Grandma’s. Winter break (Christmas holiday) as well.

The trial court found no standing and the Superior Court affirmed. They found this case distinguishable from M.J.S. v. B.B. a reported 2017 case where it was found that the grandparent was active in parent decision making and lived in the same dwelling. 172 A.3d 651.

Grandma appealed asserting what was undoubtedly a special bond formed over eight years of the activities described above. The appellate court laments the outcome but also notes that under D.G. v. D.B. the courts have a “duty to prevent intrusion into the protected domain of the family by those who are strangers, no matter how well meaning.” 91 A.3d 706 (Pa.Super. 2014)

No question this outcome will be controversial. Grandma is scarcely a well-meaning stranger on these facts, but we have seen how standing controversies end up becoming full blown custody trials. Whether you like the result or not the courts have drawn a line here that adds to the body of law published in M.J.S. v. B.B.

What happens in these cases is often that as Grandmas pony up more and more benefits for the M.P.s of the world, they can become pretty demanding about how family life is run by son and daughter in law. This produces an explosion much as seems to have occurred here in January 2023. Could granny have protected her access by a written agreement acknowledging her as “en loco parentis?” Perhaps, but that agreement might be against public policy. What she might have done early on is assert that her contributions were loans and not gifts. Faced with the prospect of owing $200-300,000 for eight years of no/low rent and tuition payments, chances are that M.P.’s parents might have navigated a more ginger exit from their years of living with Grandma’s shadow.