Grandfather Clause Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Grandfather Clause, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Grandfather Clause?

(n) Grandfather Clause is the provision contained in a statute, zoning ordinance, law etc exempting a person or entity from certain provisions contained there in, to maintain their present activities, which will be affected by the new statute, ordinance etc.

History and Meaning of Grandfather Clause

The term "Grandfather Clause" originated in the Southern United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At that time, some states were passing laws that restricted the right to vote, specifically targeting African Americans. The Grandfather Clause was included in some of these laws as a way to exempt white citizens from the new requirements. The clause allowed anyone whose grandfather had voted prior to the Civil War to be exempt from the new restrictions, even if they themselves could not meet the new requirements.

Today, the term Grandfather Clause is used more broadly to refer to any provision in a law or regulation that exempts certain individuals or activities from new requirements, often to avoid disrupting existing activities that would otherwise be in violation of the new rules.

Examples of Grandfather Clause

  • A municipality passes a new ordinance requiring all new construction to be at least three stories tall. However, a list of building permits that have already been submitted or approved are exempt from the new rule and can be built at their original height.
  • A law is passed requiring all new cars to be electric, but exempts vehicles that were built before the law was passed, allowing their continued use.
  • A new regulation requires all restaurants to install expensive air filtration systems to comply with public health standards. Existing restaurants that cannot afford the upgrades are exempt from the new rule.

Legal Terms Similar to Grandfather Clause

  • Non-conforming use: This term refers to a property or activity that was established prior to the passage of a new law or regulation and does not comply with the new requirements. Non-conforming uses may be permitted to continue under certain circumstances, but their continued use is usually subject to specific limitations or conditions.
  • Ex post facto laws: This term refers to laws that criminalize actions that were not illegal at the time they were committed. The US Constitution prohibits the passage of ex post facto laws.
  • Statute of limitations: This term refers to the time limit within which legal action may be taken to enforce a claim. Once the statute of limitations has expired, legal action is barred, even if the claim was valid at an earlier time.