Peters v. Costello

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtCastille
Citation891 A.2d 705
PartiesTeddy PETERS, Appellant v. Daniel COSTELLO and Maryann Costello, Appellees.
Decision Date30 December 2005

Arthur Brian Jarrett, Philadelphia, for Teddy Peters, appellant.

Carol Krawitz Verlin, for Daniel and Maryann Costello, appellees.

Anthony Robert Giannone, Philadelphia, for Francesca Szypula.




This Court is called upon in this appeal to determine whether "non-biological grandparents" who stand in loco parentis to one of the parents of a child with respect to whom they seek grandparental visitation rights, and who otherwise qualify to seek partial custody/visitation, have standing to seek visitation under the Grandparent Visitation Act, 23 Pa.C.S. §§ 5311-13 (the "Act"). Both the trial court and the Superior Court held that appellees, the putative grandparents in this case, were entitled to pursue visitation under the Act as a result of their in loco parentis relationship to the mother of the child. For the reasons that follow, this Court agrees that appellees had standing, and therefore, we affirm.

The pertinent facts are undisputed: Francesca Szypula is the mother of Felicity Szypula, the child at issue. In 1979, shortly after Francesca was born, appellee Maryann Costello began babysitting her. When Francesca was eleven months old, her biological mother died and her biological father, Francis Szypula, left her in the custody of appellees. Appellees are not related by blood or by marriage to Francesca. Francesca lived with appellees continuously from eleven months of age until age thirteen when she lived with her father for a period of eight months. At the conclusion of that eight-month period, Francesca returned to appellees, and appellees and Francesca's father entered into the following custody agreement:

WHEREAS, Plaintiff Francis J. Szypula ("Father") is the father of the minor child Francesca Marie Szypula born February 15, 1979;

WHEREAS, the biological mother of the child, Felicia Kay Forbes, died on January 30, 1980 when the child was less than one year old;

WHEREAS, Defendant[s] Daniel and Maryann Costello (Mr. And Mrs. Costello) have cared for the child [since] shortly after she was born;

WHEREAS, for a brief period the child lived with Father but has since returned to live with Daniel and Maryann Costello;

WHEREAS, Father and Mr. and Mrs. Costello desire to set forth the terms of the agreement with respect to the custody and support of the child while the child is living with the Costellos;

NOW THEREFORE, it is hereby stipulated and agreed by the above-captioned parties as follows:

1. Daniel and Maryann Costello shall have legal and physical custody of Francesca Marie Szypula and shall be responsible for protecting the child's best interests and welfare.

2. Father shall have the right to visit and communicate with the child on such occasions and with such frequency as he and the child may mutually agree.

3. Father shall assign to the Costellos the child's social security checks to be used for the support of the child, and shall continue to provide health insurance coverage for the child so long as it is available to him at a reasonable cost through his employment.

4. The Costellos shall be responsible for the child's health, education and welfare, and shall take such steps as are necessary to ensure that the child's physical and emotional needs are met and that she is properly supervised at all times.

Pursuant to this agreement, Francesca remained in the custody of appellees and continued to live with them well into adulthood, indeed at least through November of 2002, when the trial court rendered its decision in this case.

On November 8, 1997, while still residing with appellees and unmarried, Francesca gave birth to Felicity. Appellant Teddy Peters, who was twenty-three years of age at the time of Felicity's birth, is the child's biological father. Francesca and Felicity lived with appellees for the first four years of Felicity's life, while appellant lived elsewhere. In March of 1999, appellant petitioned for shared custody of Felicity, which the trial court granted. Then, in November of 2001, appellant petitioned for and was awarded primary physical custody, while Francesca had partial custody which was limited to weekly supervised visits. Appellant allowed appellees to see Felicity at Christmas in 2001, but denied them access to the child thereafter.

On March 13, 2002, as appellant and Francesca continued to dispute custody arrangements, appellees filed a petition for visitation with Felicity. That action was consolidated with the existing custody dispute. The trial court held a consolidated hearing on October 30, 2002, at which Francesca, Daniel Costello, Felicity's teachers, appellant, a clinical psychologist hired by appellant, and appellant's neighbor testified. Mr. Costello testified that, although Francesca is not his biological daughter, he and his wife raised her as their own since she was eleven months old, and he has had a lifelong father-daughter relationship with her. He further testified that Felicity lived with appellees for a period of four years from the time of her birth until November 2, 2001, when appellant was granted primary physical custody. Mr. Costello testified that Felicity called him "Poppy" and called Mrs. Costello "Mamom;" that appellees had always regarded Felicity as their own grandchild; and that they had had a continuous and close relationship with Felicity and spent much time with her, including birthdays and holidays. Further, during the years when Felicity lived with appellees, appellant neither questioned nor objected to their de facto grandparental relationship with the child. After primary physical custody was awarded to appellant, Mr. Costello attempted to see Felicity by calling appellant or stopping him on the street to ask for access, but appellant was unaccommodating.

Francesca testified that, since November of 2001, she had been allowed only supervised visitation with Felicity on Sundays at the Family Court facility in Philadelphia. She stated that Felicity was very attached to appellees, whom Francesca referred to as her parents. When Francesca had custody of Felicity, she resided with appellees, and Mrs. Costello cared for the child while Francesca was at work. Francesca stated that Mrs. Costello and Felicity enjoyed a loving relationship, with Mrs. Costello willing to do whatever she could for Felicity.

Dr. Najma Davis, a clinical social worker hired by appellant to perform a custody evaluation, also testified. Dr. Davis noted that she had visited appellees' home; she described appellees' relationship to Felicity as that of grandparents; stated that she considered appellees to be Felicity's grandparents; and testified that, in her professional opinion, appellees should continue to maintain a grandparental relationship with Felicity.

Appellant testified that appellees are not Felicity's biological grandparents, but acknowledged that he had treated them as Felicity's grandparents since she was born. Appellant also stated his view that a grandparent should not have a right to be involved with a grandchild if it would be detrimental to the child and, in his view, the care issues existing in the Costello home, issues which in part led to his successful custody petition, were such a detriment.

On November 13, 2002, the trial court heard Felicity's testimony in camera. Though understandably not very forthcoming given her age, Felicity did tell the court that she would like to live with her father, but also would like to spend time with appellees, whom she called "Poppy" and "Grandmom."

The trial court issued an order on November 15, 2002, awarding shared legal custody of Felicity to Francesca and appellant, with appellant having primary physical custody and Francesca having partial physical custody limited to the first and third weekend of every month, from Friday evening to Sunday evening. The court also granted appellees partial custody/visitation on the fourth weekend of every month from Friday evening to Sunday evening. In addition, the court apportioned a designated list of holidays among appellant, Francesca and appellees, and awarded appellees seven days of vacation-related physical custody, occurring at the conclusion of school each June. Finally, the court ordered that appellees should have liberal, unmonitored telephone access to Felicity.

Appellant appealed to the Superior Court, but only as to the partial custody/visitation award to appellees. Appellant argued that the trial court erred in finding that appellees had standing under the Grandparent Visitation Act, where appellees were neither the biological nor the adoptive grandparents of Felicity. The trial court filed an opinion in which it noted that it had found that appellees stood in loco parentis to Francesca because they assumed parental status when they entered into the custody agreement with Francesca's biological father and actually discharged parental duties for nearly all of Francesca's life. The court further noted that the rights and duties springing from a relationship in loco parentis are the same as in a biological parent-child relationship. With respect to appellant's argument that appellees cannot be considered Felicity's grandparents because they are not her biological grandparents, the trial court noted that nothing in the Act, or in the common meaning of the term "grandparent," restricted grandparental status to those with a biological relationship to the child. Therefore, the court determined that, as a result of their in loco parentis relationship with Francesca, appellees were Felicity's maternal grandparents.

Having found that appellees qualified as grandparents under the Act, the court next held that appellees had standing to petition for partial custody and...

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