Grandfather Clause

Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Grandfather Clause

Quick Summary of Grandfather Clause

A provision in a new law that limits its application to people who are new to the system; people already in the system are exempt from the new regulation. For example, when Washington, D.C. raised its drinking age from 18 to 21, people between those ages, who could drink under the old law, were allowed to retain the right to legally consume alcohol under a grandfather clause.

What is the dictionary definition of Grandfather Clause?

Dictionary Definition


  1. a clause in a statute or zoning ordinance (particularly a city ordinance) which permits the operator of a business or a landowner to be exempt from restrictions on use if the business or property continues to be used as it was when the law was adopted. Upon passage of the statute or regulation, the specific property may be referred to as “grandfathered in.” Example: the city passes an ordinance which does not permit retail businesses in a particular zone, but any existing store can continue to function in the area, even with new owners. However, if the premises stop being a retail outlet then the grandfather clause will lapse.
  2. among the state constitutional amendments passed by southern states in the late 1800s to keep blacks from voting, “grandfather clauses” denied voter registration to people who were illiterate, who did not own property or could not pass a test on citizenship obligations, unless their grandfathers had served in the Confederate Army. Such laws are now unconstitutional.

Full Definition of Grandfather Clause

A grandfather clause is an exception that allows an old rule to continue to apply to some existing situations when a new rule will apply to all future situations. It is often used as a verb: to grandfather means to grant such an exemption. For example, a “grandfathered power plant” might be exempt from newer and tougher pollution laws. Often, such a provision is used as a compromise, to effect new rules without upsetting a well-established logistical or political situation. This extends the idea of a rule not being retroactively applied.


The original grandfather clauses were contained in the Jim Crow laws used from 1890 to 1910 in much of the Southern United States to prevent blacks, Native Americans, and certain whites from voting. Earlier prohibitions on voting in place prior to 1870 were nullified by the Fifteenth Amendment. In response, some states passed laws requiring poll taxes and/or supposed literacy tests from would-be voters. An exemption to these requirements was made for all persons allowed to vote before the American Civil War, and any of their descendants. The term was born from the fact that the law tied the then-current generation’s voting rights to those of their grandfathers. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, some southern states adopted constitutional provisions exempting from the literacy requirements descendants of those who fought in the army or navy of the United States or of the Confederate States during a time of war.

After the U.S. Supreme Court found Jim Crow laws with such exemptions unconstitutional in Guinn v. the United States, a strict application of poll taxes and/or literacy tests would have disenfranchised some whites, and sometimes did so in early years. However, as time passed, states with Jim Crow laws chose not to enforce them against any whites.

These laws had the effect of disenfranchising blacks, Native Americans, and certain whites, until the ratification of the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and a 1966 Supreme Court ruling that eliminated most legal barriers to black voting.

In spite of its origins, today the term grandfather clause does not retain any pejorative sense.

Modern Examples


  • In 1952, the United States ratified the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution, preventing Presidents from running for a third term (or a second term, if they had served more than two years of another’s term). The text of the amendment specifically excluded the sitting president from its provisions, thus making Harry Truman eligible to run for president in 1952 even though he had served a full term and almost four years of a previous president’s term.
  • In the 1980s, as states in America were increasing their drinking ages back to 21, many of those who were of legal drinking age before the increase were still permitted to purchase and drink alcoholic beverages. Similar conditions applied when New Jersey and certain counties in New York raised tobacco purchase ages from 18 to 19 in the early 2000s.
  • During the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, certain firearms made prior to the ban’s enactment were legal to own. Automatic weapons that were manufactured before the Firearm Owners Protection Act are legal to be sold to civilians.
  • According to the Interstate Highway Act, private businesses are not allowed at rest areas along interstates. However, private businesses that began operations prior to January 1, 1960, were allowed to continue operation indefinitely.
  • Michigan law MI ST 287.1101-1123 forbade ownership or acquisition of large and dangerous exotic carnivores as pets. However, animals already owned as pets at the time of enactment were grandfathered in, and permitted to be kept.
  • The FCC stated that, as of March 1, 2007, all televisions must be equipped with a digital tuners, but stores that had TV sets with an analogue tuner only could continue to sell analog-tuner TV sets.

Standards Compliance

  • Strict building codes were implemented in Japan in 1981. These codes applied only to new buildings, and existing buildings were not required to upgrade to meet the codes. One result of this was that during the great Kobe earthquake many of the pre-1981 buildings were destroyed, whereas most buildings built post-1981, in accordance with the new building codes, withstood the earthquake.
  • On the UK’s national rail network, Network Rail requires new locomotives and rolling stock to pass tests for Electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) to ensure that they do not interfere with signalling equipment. Some old diesel locomotives, which have been in service for many years without causing such interference, are excused EMC tests and are said to have acquired “grandfather rights”.
  • The Steel Electric-class ferryboats used by Washington State Ferries are in violation of several Coast Guard regulations, but because they were built in 1927, before the enactment of the regulations, they are allowed to sail.
  • Tolled highways that existed before the Interstate Highway System are exempt from Interstate standards despite being designated as Interstate highways, and many such toll roads (particularly the Pennsylvania Turnpike) remain as such. However, tolled highways built since, such as the tolled section of PA Route 60 and PA Turnpike 576, must be built or upgraded to Interstate standards before receiving Interstate designation. Both highways will be part of the Interstate system in the form of I-376 and I-576, respectively, in the near future.
  • Interstate Highway standards mandate a minimum 11-foot median; however, highways built prior to those standards have been grandfathered into the system. The Kansas Turnpike is the most notable example, as it has a Jersey barrier along its entire 236-mile length.
  • The FCC has required all radio stations licensed in the United States since the 1930s to have four-letter callsigns starting with a W (for stations east of the Mississippi River) or a K (for stations west of the Mississippi River). However, stations with three-letter callsigns and stations west of the Mississippi River starting with a W (such as WBAP in Dallas and WIBW in Topeka, plus KDKA, KQV and KYW in Pennsylvania) licensed before the 1930s have been permitted to keep their callsigns. In the western United States, KOH in Nevada, KGA in Spokane, Washington as well as KEX in Oregon have been permitted to keep their three-letter callsign.
  • In aviation, grandfather rights refer to the control airlines exert over “slots” (that is, times allotted for access to runways). While the trend in airport management has been to reassert control over these slots, many airlines are able to retain their traditional rights based on current licenses.


  • Under the extreme heat policy at the Australian Open in tennis, once the policy is invoked, no new matches can begin, but matches that have already commenced may finish.
  • The National Hockey League required all players to wear helmets in 1979. However, if a player had signed his first professional contract before this ruling, he was allowed to play without a helmet. Craig MacTavish was the last player to do so, playing without a helmet up until his retirement in 1997.
  • Half visors became mandatory before the 2006-07 season, and a grandfather clause is in effect for all players who were in the NHL before the ruling.
  • In 2006, NASCAR passed a rule that required teams to field no more than four cars. Since Roush Racing had five cars, they could continue to field five cars.
  • In 1997, to honor Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball prohibited all teams from issuing #42 in the future, but current players wearing #42 were grandfathered. As of 2008, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is the only player still wearing #42.
  • In 1920, when Major League Baseball introduced the prohibition of the spitball, it was recognized that there were some professional pitchers who had built their careers in large part on the spitball. A special exception was made for these 17 named players, and they were permitted to throw spitballs for the rest of their careers. Burleigh Grimes threw the last legal spitball in 1934.
  • In NASCAR, grandfather clause protection refers to Alltel, Cingular, Samsung and RadioShack (for a race at Texas Motor Speedway) (all parties had been regular sponsors in NASCAR’s then-Winston Cup Series since 2002), in reference to a prohibition on NASCAR sponsorships in the Nextel Cup Series established on June 19, 2003. No telecommunications company advertising is permitted at NASCAR Nextel Cup Series events under the exclusivity agreement between NASCAR and Nextel. (Samsung was prohibited because they were a technical competitor to Nextel, which uses exclusively Motorola products.) They may continue with their present sponsorships, but if they change, they will become prohibited. After the 2005 merger of Sprint and Nextel, the prohibition on Samsung and RadioShack was removed, because Sprint carries Samsung products, and Sprint is sold at RadioShack. Another instance that has arrived is the present
  • Motorola sponsorship of the #7 of Robby Gordon. As Nextel banned the use of the sponsor as a primary, but can be used as an associate, as the Motorola logo could be seen on the doorpost of Gordon’s car. This sponsorship issue came ahead after AT&T’s acquisition of BellSouth in 2006, which gave the company 100% ownership of Cingular and announced phaseout of the Cingular brand name in favour of AT&T for wireless service. Sprint and NASCAR immediately prohibited AT&T from remaining as a sponsor for Jeff Burton, even though AT&T owned 60% of
  • Cingular before the BellSouth deal. A compromise was later reached that allows AT&T to remain as a sponsor through the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series while Richard Childress Racing has time to find a new sponsor for 2009.[2]
  • The NFL outlawed the one-bar facemask for the 2004 season but allowed existing users to continue wearing them. As of the end of the 2006 NFL season, only Arizona Cardinals punter Scott Player was still wearing the one-bar facemask. After being signed by the Cleveland Browns, Player still uses the one-bar facemask.
  • The NFL introduced a numbering system for the 1973 season, requiring players to be numbered by position. Players who played in the NFL in 1972 and earlier were allowed to keep their old numbers, although New York Giants linebacker Brad Van Pelt wore number 10 despite entering the league in 1973 (linebackers had to be numbered in the 50s at the time; they may now wear numbers in the 50s or 90s). The last player to be covered by the grandfather clause was Julius Adams, a defensive end for the New England Patriots who wore number 85 through the 1985 season.
  • The NFL prohibits corporations from owning teams, partially so that ownership can concentrate on football as opposed to making a profit, as well as wanting the teams to have an actual owner instead of a board of directors at owners meetings. The Green Bay Packers, due to their unique ownership status with the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, are exempt from this.
  • WWE has banned use of the piledriver but still allows Jerry Lawler, The Undertaker, Mr. Kennedy, Tommy Dreamer, and Kane to use the move.
  • Three former venues in the National Hockey League, Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden and Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, had shorter-than-regulation ice surface, as their construction predated the regulation. The distance was taken out of the neutral zone and this often threw visiting players off of their game, giving home teams an immense advantage. It was also supposed that this allowed Bobby Orr to complete his famous end-to-end rushes quicker in the Garden. All three arenas were replaced by newer facilities in 1996.
  • Major League Baseball rule 1.16 requires players who were not in the major leagues prior to 1983 to wear a batting helmet with at least one earflap. As of 2007, the only Major League
  • Baseball player allowed to wear an earflap-less batting helmet is Julio Franco.
  • For many decades, American League umpires working behind home plate used large, balloon-style chest protectors worn outside the shirt or coat, while their counterparts in the national league wore chest protectors inside the shirt or coat, more akin to those worn by catchers. In 1977, the AL ruled all umpires entering the league had to wear the inside protector, although umpires in the league at that point who were using the outside protector could continue to do so. The last umpire to regularly wear the outside protector was Jerry Neudecker, who retired after the 1985 season.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

Page URL
Modern Language Association (MLA):
Grandfather Clause. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. September 21, 2021
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Grandfather Clause. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: September 21, 2021).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Grandfather Clause. Retrieved September 21, 2021, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Grandfather Clause are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 28th April, 2020 | 20 Views.