In the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, grandparents in an estimated 2.1 million households are responsible for the care of their grandchildren under the age of 18. For many of these families — called kincare families, or “grandfamilies” in certain circles — these living circumstances came about unexpectedly. If you ever find yourself in a similar situation, even temporarily, here are some steps you should take to protect yourself and the children. 

Legal Issues

If your grandchildren will be living with you for any length of time, it’s important to understand that this doesn’t automatically give you legal rights to make decisions for those children. Unless you’ve taken steps to secure a legal caregiver relationship, you may have trouble enrolling them in school, authorizing medical treatment, getting financial assistance or obtaining health insurance.

In certain circumstances, the best option is to seek legal custody or guardianship of the children. However, some people (understandably) want to avoid this route because it involves lawyers and can alienate the child’s parents. If you’re hesitant to get the courts involved, alternatives do exist.

If the child’s parents are willing, they can create a power of attorney to give you temporary authority to make specific decisions for their child, such as seeking medical care or enrolling them in school. Power of attorney provisions differ based on state laws, but for the most part a power of attorney does not remove a parent’s legal rights, and the parent can revoke it at any time. The parents could also choose to fill out consent forms that could give you the legal access that you need, but again, this right varies from state to state.

Financial Assistance

Most grandparents do not plan on providing for their grandchildren in their retirement years, so financial stress can be an additional issue. Raising children is expensive, and it can be very difficult to do so on a fixed income. 

Receiving financial assistance is often reliant upon whatever legal parameters you’ve established. If your guardianship is informal (meaning it’s a verbal agreement between you and the child’s parents), it is entirely up to you to make any arrangements regarding parental financial support. 

If you have legal guardianship/custody of the child, you are usually legally entitled to some form of financial support. If the child has been removed from the parents’ home by the state, for example, you can formally apply to become their foster parent, which would give you access to some financial assistance. Subsidized guardianship is also available in some states, which offers payments to help meet the basic needs of the children. For many people, though, financial help is only available to those able to navigate labyrinthian bureaucratic systems and apply for it. For example, in New York, help may be available through a program called the Non-Parent Caregiver Grant. The grant is provided through state and local governments and can provide up to $400/month for one child and $125 for each additional child in a kincare family. (For more information, or to apply, click here.) In 2010, it was estimated that only 8% of potentially eligible children were receiving this grant. 

Emotional Challenges

When you take on the parenting role for your grandchildren, it usually means you have to let go of what you thought retirement would look like. It often involves sacrificing much-wanted leisure time, travel dreams and the traditional grandparent/grandchild relationship. So it goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway): Big feelings will be involved. 

Seeking therapy for yourself as well as the grandchildren may be a good step. Undoubtedly, this move wasn’t made lightly, so it could be helpful to parse through the difficult emotions with a licensed professional to guide the way. 

Support systems are important, too, whether that’s formal support groups or close, trusted friends. (Any patient, listening ear can help, but formal support groups may be better because participants will be people who know what you’re going through firsthand.) 

Top image by AleksandarNakic from Getty Images Signature, via

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