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 stepparents have when it comes to their stepchildren, not only in their daily lives but if the marriage ends in divorce?
Married Stepparent Rights in Daily Life
Whether your spouse has primary, shared, or sole custody of their children, or even only visitation, you will be living under the same roof as your stepchildren for at least some of the time. This means you will eventually have to deal with discipline, medical and school issues related to your partner's kids. As a stepparent, what rights do you have to participate in these decisions?
Is a Stepparent a Legal Guardian?
A stepparent is not automatically a legal guardian of their stepchildren. Rights to a child remain with both natural parents after a separation or divorce and are only transferred to a stepparent following legal procedures and in extreme circumstances. As a stepparent, 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 Stepparent Become a Legal Guardian?
A stepparent 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.
- You need to get a Petition of Guardianship from the clerk's office at your local courthouse to start this process.
Stepparents and Discipline
When the children are in your home, you are responsible for their health and well-being, just as if you were the babysitter or nanny. It's best practice for biological parents to take the lead on discipline for their children, with stepparents playing a supporting role. This means that, as the stepparent, 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.)
Stepparents 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 stepparent because they are "an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian" as long as the stepparent lives with the stepchild at least part of the time.
- Married stepparents living with their stepchild 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 stepparents can gain legal access to their partner's child's school records if their partner designates this right to them.
Stepparents and School Decisions
If stepparents have not obtained legal guardianship, they do not have the right to decide 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 independently. Decisions specifically related to the child's schooling fall on the shoulders of the natural parents who retain legal custody of the child.
Stepparents and Travel
Stepparents may travel alone with their stepchildren. If you and your stepchildren 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.
Stepparents and Medical Decisions
Stepparents do not have the legal right to consent to medical treatment for their stepchildren in most states. However, there are legal ways to change this.
Stepparents and Typical Medical Decisions
- In some states, you can file a Power of Attorney form to grant some medical decision-making rights to a stepparent.
- In some states, you can legally change your custody parenting agreement to include stepparent medical rights.
- A copy of any Power of Attorney Rights or changes to the legal custody parenting agreement should be kept with the child's medical records.
- You should also keep a personal copy on hand if 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 stepchild; the other parent's signature is unnecessary.
- In case of an emergency when your stepchild needs emergency life-saving medical care, most hospitals will treat the child without natural parent consent.
Stepparent Rights After Divorce
In many cases, the relationship between stepparent and stepchildren is severed when the divorce is final. However, many stepparents want to continue their relationships with their stepchildren long after the marriage to the child's parent has ended. If the children are adults, the decision to continue the relationship is between the stepparent and stepchild. However, if the stepchild is a minor, the recourses for stepparents are relatively limited. Ex-stepparent rights vary from state to state.
Stepparent 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 stepparents to gain custody of their stepchild over the parent's objections.
- In most states, a stepparent can only request custody of the stepchild if his biological parents are deceased or disabled and unable to care for the child.
Stepparent Visitation Rights
While stepparents might not have custody rights after divorce, they often have the chance to request visitation with the child legally.
- Twenty-three states have laws that authorize stepparent visitation rights.
- Thirteen other states, including Ohio, Virginia, and Wyoming, allow interested third parties to request visitation rights, with stepparents being acceptable third parties.
- Alabama, Florida, Iowa, and South Dakota exclude stepparents from requesting visitation rights.
- The other ten states don't have laws regarding stepparents and visitation rights, so they often let stepparents petition for rights.
Obtaining Custody and Visitation
Even in those cases where the stepparent 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 stepparent's petition if the child is over a specified age, usually 12 or 13. In addition, the stepparent must prove that they had a significant role in the child's life and that it would be in the child's best interest that the relationship continues.
Gaining Legal Rights
If you wish to have full legal rights over your stepchild, you must either adopt the child or be appointed their legal guardian. However, unless the other biological parent consents to the adoption, is deceased, has abandoned the child, or should otherwise have their parental rights terminated (for example, in the case of abuse or neglect), the court is unlikely to grant such a request.
Unmarried Stepparent Rights
The term "stepparent" is generally reserved for married people, but unmarried people can serve a similar role. In general, unmarried stepparents 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.
- For example, in the state of Arizona, 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 stepparent custody and visitation vary among states. If you wish to seek custody of, or visitation with, your stepchild, contact a family law attorney with experience handling stepparent custody cases. With the rise of second and even third marriages, many people will find themselves part of a blended family. While stepparents do not have all the rights of a biological parent, they can still play an active role in helping to raise their stepchildren.