Grandfather Clause

A grandfather clause is a provision in a new statute or zoning ordinance that exempts certain previously existing business, enterprise, or class of persons from the new rules or regulations. Grandfather clauses are a common way to enact new rules, regulations, and laws that affect such enterprises and situations going forward, while factoring in logistical or cost problems that would arise if the old enterprise were to be required to update or upgrade.

Such clauses have given rise to the popular term “grandfathered in,” which means that certain people, businesses, or entities are exempt from the new law, rule, or regulation. To explore this concept, consider the following grandfather clause definition.

Definition of Grandfather Clause<


  1. A legal provision that exempts a business, enterprise, or class of persons from a new rule, regulation, or law that would affect rights or privileges previously held.


1895-1900 Americanism

What is a Grandfather Clause

A grandfather clause is a provision in which businesses, enterprises, or class of persons are exempt from the provisions of a new rule, regulation, or law. Usually, a grandfather clause specifies a date for the division of exempted entities, making it clear that situations that occur from that date forward are subject to the new regulations. In basic terms, a grandfather clause allows the current state of something to remain unchanged, regardless of the policy change.

For example:

When Washington D.C. raised its legal age for drinking alcohol from 18 to 21 years, a grandfather clause allowed individuals between those ages, who could legally drink before the new law was enacted, to continue drinking. All people under the age of 21 years at the time the law went into effect, could not legally drink until they turned 21.

History of the Grandfather Clause

In the late 19th century, many Southern states passed laws, and made amendments to their state constitutions, creating new standards for voting rights. These new standards included literacy tests, residence and property restrictions, and the payment of poll taxes for those wishing to vote. The goal of these new laws was to prevent poor, illiterate African-American former slaves from voting, while not denying poor, illiterate whites the voting right.

Some states offered an exemption to this prohibition to individuals whose ancestors, or “grandfathers,” had the right to vote prior to a specified date, usually the end of the Civil War. Eventually, these clauses, as they applied to the right to vote, were determined to be unconstitutional in the U.S. Supreme Court 1915 case of Guinn v. United States. After the ruling, many poor Southern white people were able to vote, but the majority of blacks continued to be unable to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the use of poll taxes in any election, and ensured the rights of every American citizen to vote.

Limitations to the Grandfather Clause

Limitations to the grandfather clause form the basis for being able to compromise in passing new legislation and regulations without creating a financially difficult situation for existing entities. This is done by exempting such entities from compliance for a limited time period, or revoking the exemption in the event the entity, such as a factory, expands or remodels. In either case, the exemption would not apply to a new owner, if the business was sold.

Grandfather Clause in Statutes or Zoning Ordinances

Grandfather clauses are commonly used in creating new zoning ordinances and city or state statutes. The grandfather clause in statute or zoning ordinances permits a business or landowner to request an exemption from restrictions on how the land is used, so long as it continues to be used as it was when the zoning ordinance was adopted.

For example, if the city of Chicago enacts a zoning ordinance that prohibits retails businesses in a certain area, a grandfather clause may allow retail stores already operating in the area to remain. If the business changes to something other than a retail store, the grandfather clause would end. In many cases, such a grandfather clause may end if the existing retail store, or the land, is sold to another person or entity.

Examples of Real Life Grandfather Clauses

Change to a State’s Method of Execution

In 1984, the state of Mississippi passed a law that changed the state’s method of execution from the gas chamber to lethal injection. The new law stated that anyone sentenced to death after July 1, 1984 would be executed by lethal injection. A grandfather clause in this new state legislation, however, meant anyone still on death row, who had been sentenced to death after July 1, 1984, would be grandfathered in to the gas chamber. Three more death row inmates were executed before the Mississippi legislature, in 1998, updated the law to allow all those sentenced to the death penalty to be executed by lethal injection.

The NFL Numbering System

In 1973, the National Football League (“NFL”) instituted a numbering system, in which players were required to be numbered by position. A grandfather clause allowed players who played in the 1972 season and earlier to keep their original numbers. The last player covered by the grandfather clause was New England Patriots player Julius Adams, who had joined the NFL in 1971.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Clause – A section of a legal document that relates to a particular point or issue.
  • Entity – An organization established and existing apart from any other interest, business or personal.
  • Jim Crow Laws – The legal practice of racial segregation in many states from the 1880s through the 1960s. Named after a popular black character in minstrel shows, the Jim Crow laws imposed punishments for such things as keeping company with members of another race, interracial marriage, and failure of business owners to keep white and black patrons separated.