Whenever Christy C. mentions the two grandchildren who live with her, she bursts with pride. Her 11-year-old granddaughter is a competitive cheerleader constantly tumbling around the house. Christy’s grandson, who is 12, is an “absolute baseball maniac” and plays in an advanced league for his age, she says. Christy’s full name has been withheld to protect the family’s privacy.
Christy and her husband have been raising their grandkids for more than a decade. The couple took the children in after their adopted daughter, who suffers from mental illness, gave birth to them as a teenager. Christy, 68, of Hamden, Conn., says the arrangement has brought much joy to her life, but the responsibility has also taken a toll. “They call me grandmommy,” Christy says. “I’m their grandma and their mommy in one bundle.”
It has become an all-too-common scenario. The number of children in their grandparents’ care doubled from 1970 to 2010. It can be difficult for these caregivers to find legal, financial and emotional support. “Economically, it is really challenging. The grandparents are retired and weren’t financially prepared for this,” says Rachel Dunifon, a professor of policy analysis and management and dean of Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. But the amount of love in these families is incredible, she says. “There is a huge amount of appreciation for each other.”
Legal Challenges for Grandparents
The ranks of grandparents raising grandchildren has swelled for many reasons. In some cases, the birth parents have been incarcerated or have mental health issues. Drug addiction, including the current opioid crisis, is often a factor.
Roughly 2.5 million grandparents were responsible for raising grandchildren as of 2019, according to the Census Bureau. Experts believe the true number is higher because many grandparents take in their grandchildren unofficially. These grandparents are often reluctant to become official foster parents or push for guardianship because they believe the arrangement will be temporary, says Ana Beltran, co-director of the National Center on Grandfamilies.
Others can’t afford to pursue a legal relationship. “We have so many anecdotes of grandparents depleting retirement savings to get guardianship,” Beltran says.
There are other options that can give grandparents some legal standing. For instance, a parent can sign a parental delegation of authority or a power of attorney, though these agreements are usually for a limited time.
Also, about 17 states have educational consent laws, and about half have health care consent laws. These laws allow caregivers to complete an affidavit swearing they are responsible for a child, giving them the authority to enroll the child in school or consent to health care. This option works well when a parent can’t be found to sign a delegation of authority.
Adopting a grandchild is another possibility, but it comes with a significant drawback for the parents. If the grandparent is a guardian, the birth parents still retain certain rights, such as visits, but those rights are severed if the child is adopted. Grandfamilies.org lists resources and legal options by state on its website.
COVID-19 has also highlighted the need for caregivers to consider who will care for the child if something happens to them. Through guardianship assistance programs available in most states, a guardian can name a successor to care for the child, Beltran says, but the programs are for former foster parents, who are related to the child and who exit the foster care system by becoming the child’s guardian. State laws vary on whether grandparents who become guardians of grandchildren without going through the foster care system can name a successor.
Caregivers without a legal relationship to the child typically have no legal right to name a successor, but they can collect evidence, such as school and health records, that show they have been raising the child. That can enable them to name another trusted individual to care for the kids in a signed, notarized document. Although it’s unlikely to be legally binding, it could help, Beltran says.
Financial Assistance for Grandparents
Making ends meet can be difficult, especially for caregivers who are retired and living on a fixed income, says Melinda Perez-Porter, director of the Brookdale Foundation’s Relatives as Parents Program, which provides seed grants to nonprofit organizations that help grandparents and other relatives raising children.
Financial assistance, though, is limited and hard for grandparents who are caregivers to get, she adds. “It can be difficult for them to apply for benefits from programs that were not created [for] relatives serving as primary caregivers.”
A probate court granted Christy and her husband $400 a month for having guardianship of her two grandkids, but the family still struggles. Christy’s husband stopped working in October after injuring his back, and she has retired from her job running a day care. To stretch those dollars further, over the years, Christy has developed a support network that includes receiving donated items, such as winter coats and Christmas gifts, from charities and trading clothing with other caregivers when her grandchildren move up to the next size.
The federal government may also offer some assistance. Grandparents, including those caring for children informally, may be able to take advantage of certain tax credits, such as the child tax credit. The caregiver must have taken care of the child for at least six months to qualify. Social Security may also help. The child might be eligible for up to 50% of a disabled parent’s Social Security benefit or up to 75% of a survivor benefit when a parent is deceased. If claimed as a dependent, the child might qualify for 50% of a grandparent’s benefit if the parents are disabled or deceased or the grandparents adopt the child.
Licensed foster parents receive monthly stipends that are based on factors such as the child’s age and needs. Most guardianship assistance programs provide ongoing financial help based on the child’s and family’s needs, including Medicaid coverage for the child, and pay for some one-time costs.
Every state offers adoption assistance for caregivers who adopt a child from the foster care system. This generally provides monthly payments, reimbursement of some one-time costs tied to adoption, and Medicaid coverage. The child must be considered special needs, though roughly 90% of children qualify.
Grandparents who become guardians of grandchildren without going through the foster care system can apply for help through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program Child-Only Grant. Qualifications in most states are based on the child’s income, not the caregiver’s.
Seeking Out Emotional Support
Although the pandemic has made it more difficult, grandparents can connect with and draw on the experience of other grandparents who care for grandchildren. Joe O’Leary, treasurer of Massachusetts’ Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, organized a local support group about three years ago. More than seven years ago, O’Leary and his wife, both of Maynard, Mass., started raising their then 7-month-old grandson.
Before the pandemic, the group had about 25 families and was a great outlet for caregivers to find others facing the same challenges. It also alleviated some of the stigma associated with a loved one struggling with substance abuse or mental illness. “People’s first instinct is not to reach out,” O’Leary says. “Then hopefully they realize they aren’t the only one, that substance abuse is quite common these days.”
For now, the group is meeting virtually, making it more difficult for caregivers to connect, and attendance has declined. It’s essential that grandparents take care of themselves, says Deborah Langosch, a clinical social worker. “Our caregivers are so generous and focused on the children, they put themselves on the back burner,” Langosch says. “They are quick to get the child to a doctor but may put their own needs on hold.” At grandfamilies.org/State-Fact-Sheets, caregivers can find services, such as respite care, and other resources in their state.
Despite the challenges, grandparents and grandchildren often find the arrangement rewarding, something that Dunifon’s research of grandparents raising teenage grandchildren also confirms.
O’Leary agrees. “[My] wife and I are in our mid-70s,” he says. “When we got custody of my youngest grandchild, it gave purpose to our lives. It went a long way toward answering what my legacy will be and why I am here.”
Jackie Stewart is the senior retirement editor for Kiplinger.com and the senior editor for Kiplinger's Retirement Report.
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