Approximately 2.7 million American adults provide full-time care for one or more grandchildren. According to data published by PBS News Hour in 2016, this number represents an increase of 7% since 2009.

If you are one of the grandparents raising grandchildren, you may or may not have legal custody. These are the steps to take to protect yourself and your grandchildren when you are acting as their guardian.

Explore legal relationship options

Although you may not have a formal custody or guardianship relationship with your grandchildren, it often makes sense to seek this designation. Without this legal relationship, a parent who is physically or mentally unable to care for the child could regain custody at any time, even if it is not in the child’s best interest. Options to consider include the following:

  • Custody: The court may formally order custody or the child’s parent may request it. In Pennsylvania, grandparents can seek partial or full custody when the child has been in your care for at least 12 months, the child’s parents have divorced or been separated for at least six months and/or one or both parents has died. In many cases, parents retain some legal rights.
  • Adoption: This carries the same rights and responsibilities of a child’s biological parent. The court terminates the birth parents’ rights.
  • Guardianship: This option gives you the responsibility of caring for a child if the parent cannot do so. Guardianship differs from legal custody in that a guardian manages day-to-day care but not necessarily long-term decisions such as schooling and health care.

Obtain medical and educational consent

If you have not yet established a legal relationship, you will need proof of parental consent to enroll your grandchildren in school and give permission for routine and emergency medical care. Pennsylvania’s Medical Consent Act lets grandparents seek medical care for grandchildren with a written authorization statement from the parent or legal guardian.

Seek resources within your community to assist grandparent caregivers. A family law attorney can offer legal advice specific to your situation.