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?
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?
Discipline is one of the biggest issues facing step-parents and step-children. "I don't have to listen to you, you're not my mom!" is a familiar refrain. However, 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, including making and enforcing rules.
This means that, as the step-parent, you (along 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 (ie violent video games, television or movies considered "mature," etc.)
Step-parents have the right to receive and review their step-children's school records, as well as the right to make education decisions. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) states that parents have the right to inspect and review their child's school records. Under FERPA, "parent" is defined as "an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian." This language has been interpreted to include a step-parent, provided that the child lives with the biological and step-parent at least part of the time.
Because not every school employee may be aware of FERPA, or because the child's other biological parent may try to prohibit the school from providing you with information, it is a good idea to have your spouse give school administrators a signed consent form that specifically authorizes you to receive printed and verbal communications regarding the child and to pick him up from school. It is not necessary for the child's other parent to also sign the consent form; your spouse's signature is enough to give the school the right to provide you with the child's school records and other information.
Step-parents do not have the legal right to consent to medical treatment for their step-children. However, this is not always practical. For instance, you may be the primary caregiver for your step-children while your spouse is at work, and are responsible for bringing them to doctor's appointments. Similarly, if there was an emergency, you would be the one to take them to the hospital.
To make sure you have the authority to handle any medical issues that may arise, your spouse must sign a consent form that authorizes you to make medical decisions for the child. 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 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-Parent Rights After Divorce
In many cases, the relationship between step-parent and step-children is severed when the divorce is final. However, a growing 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.
Custody and Visitation
The Supreme Court has ruled 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, or visitation with, their step-child over the parent's objections. In most states, a step-parent can only request custody of, or visitation with, the step-child if his biological parents are deceased or disabled and unable to care for the child.
This means that if you and your spouse divorce, and she refuses to allow you to see her children, you have little legal recourse. If she dies, however, and the child's surviving biological parent refuses to allow you to have contact with the children, you would be able to petition the court for custody or visitation.
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.
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.
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.
The Ties That Bind
With the rise of second and even third marriages, many people will find themselves part of a blended family. While step-parents, particularly step-mothers, are often portrayed in pop culture as "evil," many want to be involved in their step-children's lives. 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.