Overview of Step-Parents' Rights


In the United States, approximately 40 percent of all married couples with children are blended families. That means that in each of these households, at least one-half of the couple is helping to raise their spouse's children. The question is often raised, what rights do step-parents have when it comes to their step-children, not only in their daily lives, but if the marriage ends in divorce?

Married Step-Parent Rights in Daily Life

Whether your spouse has primary, shared or sole custody of his children, or even only visitation, you will be living under the same roof as your step-children at least some of the time. This means you will eventually have to deal with discipline, medical and school issues. As a step-parent, what rights do you have to participate in these decisions?

Is a Step-Parent a Legal Guardian?

A step-parent is not automatically a legal guardian of their step-children. Rights to a child remain with both natural parents after a separation or divorce and are only transferred to a step-parent following legal procedures and in extreme circumstances. As a step-parent, you do not have the authority to make legal decisions for your stepchild unless you have pursued legal actions to gain this right.

Can a Step-Parent Become a Legal Guardian?

A step-parent can become a legal guardian by receiving court-ordered guardianship of a stepchild.

  • Guardianship gives you the same rights over the child as a natural parent would have.
  • You can only obtain legal guardianship if one or both of their natural parents are unable or unwilling to care for the child.
  • To start this process, you need to get a Petition of Guardianship from the clerk's office at your local courthouse.

Step-Parents and Discipline

When the children are in your home, just as if you were the babysitter or nanny, you are responsible for their health and well-being. It's best practice for natural parents to take the lead on discipline for their own children with step-parents playing a supporting role. This means that, as the step-parent, you (with your spouse) are in control of such things as:

  • Implementing and enforcing curfew
  • Punishment for breaking house rules
  • Assigning household chores
  • Deciding what type of media the child can be exposed to (violent video games, television or movies considered "mature," etc.)

Step-Parents and School Records

As part of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), parents have the right to inspect and review their child's school records. Under FERPA, "parent" is interpreted to include a step-parent because they are "an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian" as long as the step-parent lives with the step-child at least part of the time.

  • Married step-parents living with their step-child do automatically have the right to receive and review a stepchild's school records.
  • Each natural parent has the right to designate anyone they want to have access to review their child's school records.
  • You do not need the consent of the other natural parent to designate your partner/spouse the right to access your child's school records.
  • Unmarried step-parents can gain legal access to their partner's child if their partner designates them this right with the school.

Step-Parents and School Decisions

If step-parents have not obtained legal guardianship, they do not have the right to make decisions about a stepchild's schooling. While you can certainly participate in the decision-making process by discussing schooling decisions with your spouse, you do not automatically have the right to make these decisions on your own.

Step-Parents and Travel

Step-parents may travel alone with their step-children. If you and your step-children will be taking a solo trip, whether out of state or out of the country, it is a good idea to have your spouse (and the other parent, if possible, though not necessary) sign a consent form authorizing you to travel with the child.

Step-Parents and Medical Decisions

Step-parents do not have the legal right to consent to medical treatment for their step-children in most states. However, there are legal ways to change this.

Step-Parents and Typical Medical Decisions

To make sure you have the authority to handle any medical issues that may arise, your spouse can sign a consent form that authorizes you to make medical decisions for the child.

  • In some states, you can file a Power of Attorney form to grant some medical decision-making rights to a step-parent.
  • In some states, you can legally change your custody parenting agreement to include step-parent medical rights.
  • A copy should be kept with the child's medical records.
  • You should also keep a copy on hand in case you visit a doctor other than the child's primary physician.
  • Your spouse's signature on the consent form is sufficient to grant you the authority to make medical decisions for your step-child; the other parent's signature is unnecessary.

Step-Parents and Emergency Medical Decisions

In case of a real emergency when your stepchild needs emergency life-saving medical care, most hospitals will treat the child without natural parent consent.

Step-Parent Rights After Divorce

In many cases, the relationship between step-parent and step-children is severed when the divorce is final. However, a number of step-parents want to continue with their relationships with their step-children. If the children are adults, then the decision to continue the relationship is between the step-parent and step-child. However, if the step-child is a minor, the recourses for step-parents are fairly limited. Ex-step-parent rights vary from state to state.

Step-Parent Custody Rights

The Supreme Court upheld a ruling in 2000 that parents have a "fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control" of their children.

  • This includes the right to decide who can and cannot have access to their child.
  • Consequently, courts have made it harder for step-parents to gain custody of their step-child over the parent's objections.
  • In most states, a step-parent can only request custody of the step-child if his biological parents are deceased or disabled and unable to care for the child.

Step-Parent Visitation Rights

While step-parents might not have custody rights after divorce, they do often have the chance to legally request visitation with the child.

  • Twenty-three states have laws that authorize step-parent visitation rights.
  • Thirteen other states, like Ohio, Virginia, and Wyoming, allow interested third parties to request visitation rights, with step-parents being acceptable third parties.
  • Alabama, Florida, Iowa, and South Dakota exclude step-parents from requesting visitation rights.
  • The other 10 states don't have laws regarding step-parents and visitation rights, so they often let step-parents petition for rights.

Obtaining Custody and Visitation

Even in those cases where the step-parent has the legal right to request custody or visitation, it is not guaranteed that the court will grant the request. Most courts only consider the step-parent's petition if the child is over a specified age, usually 12 or 13. In addition, the step-parent must prove that he had a significant role in the child's life, and that it would be in the child's best interest that the relationship continue.

Gaining Legal Rights

If you wish to have full legal rights over your step-child, you must either adopt the child or be appointed his legal guardian. However, unless the other biological parent consents to the adoption, is deceased, has abandoned the child or should otherwise have his parental rights terminated (for example, in the case of abuse or neglect), the court is unlikely to grant such a request.

Unmarried Step-Parent Rights

The term "step-parent" is generally reserved for people who are married, but unmarried people can serve a similar role. In general, unmarried step-parents have no rights to the children of their partners.

  • Even if you have helped raise and care for your partner's child for many years, you may not have many legal rights to them.
  • Laws vary by state, so you should always check the specific laws for the state where the child resides.
  • In the state of Arizona, for example, people who act as parents to a child are allowed to request visitation of that child even if they weren't married to the child's natural parent.

The Ties That Bind

The laws governing step-parent custody and visitation vary among states. If you wish to seek custody of, or visitation with, your step-child, contact a family law attorney with experience handling step-parent custody cases. With the rise of second and even third marriages, many people will find themselves part of a blended family. While step-parents do not have all the rights of a biological parent, they can still play an active role in helping to raise their step-children.

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Overview of Step-Parents' Rights