Parenting Rights for Stepparents

Stepparents are a prominent and increasingly common part of many families’ structure.

Families do not have a single formation. They grow and change, and we welcome new family members to the fold through birth, marriage, and friendship. Stepparents are a prominent and increasingly common part of many families’ structure. They can play a formative role in a child’s upbringing, giving them yet another adult to rely on and look to for guidance.

Yet, while the emotional connections between stepparents and their children can be strong, the legal connections between them may be less concrete. This can place stepparents in an uncomfortable limbo if their marriage to a custodial parent ends or if their spouse passes away unexpectedly.

For the former, in an ideal situation, custodial parents will recognize the bonds that have formed between children and stepparents and work to maintain those relationships even without any legal obligations.

For the latter, the death of a spouse is never easily contemplated, but many stepparents must contend with this reality unexpectedly. If the children's other parent is still involved, a stepparent's continued relationship with children can be a difficult situation to navigate.

Obtaining Legal Rights and Responsibilities

The process for obtaining legal rights and responsibilities for stepchildren varies greatly by state. Below is an outline for how stepparent adoption and legal guardianship work generally in the United States, but local family law practitioners should always be consulted for information about the particulars in your region.

Stepparent Adoption

Adoption of a stepchild forms permanent legal ties between stepparents and children, with all the rights and responsibilities of a biological parent. However, solidifying ties in this manner is complicated and not appropriate for every family.

The adoption of a child by a stepparent severs the legal ties between children and their noncustodial parent. If the noncustodial parent is an able and willing parent to their children, pursuing stepparent adoption is not only unnecessary but could also be damaging to familial relationships.

If a biological parent opposes a stepparent adoption, children will potentially be exposed to yet another legal battle in their young lives. Conflict between parents, whether it’s between biological or bonus parents, has lasting effects on a child’s confidence and sense of stability. Parents should examine deeply their reasoning for pursuing stepparent adoption and think critically about whether or not doing so will be in the best interests of their children.

If the noncustodial parent is either absent from, unable, or unwilling to participate in their child’s upbringing, the custodial parent and stepparent may wish to pursue stepparent adoption. Adoption creates a legally protected relationship between stepparents and their children. It can provide stability and security in day-to-day matters, but also prove vital in situations where a biological parent falls ill or passes away unexpectedly.  

When a child is of a certain age, certain states require their consent to being adopted by their stepparent for the petition to be accepted by the court. The age at which this is a requirement can vary widely between states, so parents should ask a family law professional about their region’s adoption laws.

Legal Guardianship

A legal guardianship differs from stepparent adoption in that it does not sever the legal ties between children and their biological parents. If a stepparent is appointed a legal guardian of their stepchild, biological parents still retain all legal and financial responsibilities for their children.

While the responsibilities of legal guardianships co-exist with the rights and responsibilities of parents, courts may be hesitant to grant guardianship when both parents are fit and involved in their children’s upbringing. More commonly, requests for legal guardianship are reserved for when one or both parents are either unwilling or unable to care for their children.

Guardianship relationships also differ from stepparent adoption in that they typically only last until a child reaches the legal age of majority or when a court determines that the guardianship is no longer necessary or in the best interests of the child.

Temporary Guardianship

Temporary guardianship is a subset of guardianship that is enacted in response to emergency situations, such as when a legal parent must undergo emergency medical care or travel outside of the country.

Custody and Visitation Rights

Stepparents who have been a part of a child’s life for many years can still find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having no legal ties with them after a divorce or unexpected death. Yet the relationships between stepparents and stepchildren can be foundational, the loss of which can leave children bereft of an important source of support and love.

Whether parted by divorce or the loss of a loved one, in an ideal world, biological parents would recognize the importance of the relationship between a stepparent and their children. But divorce proceedings can be contentious, and individuals involved may not be as open-minded and flexible as they are at other times. In the case of the unexpected death of a spouse, if there was a history of conflict between biological parents, the other parent may be more reluctant to further facilitate the relationship between their children and a stepparent.  

Some stepparents may wish to pursue legal intervention for maintaining their relationship with their stepchildren. Yet, stepparent custody and visitation rights vary greatly by location. In most states, it’s an uphill battle for stepparents to gain any custody rights, especially when both parents are able and involved in their children’s lives.

However, some states have enacted laws that allow for step-parent visitation. Other states also allow ‘interested third parties’ to request visitation, and step-parents may qualify as an interested third party in some situations.

Whether pursuing custody or visitation, it is vital that stepparents consult a licensed legal professional in their area who is familiar with their state’s custody laws.

Stepparents often play a central role in the lives of their stepchildren. That leaves many stepparents unsure of how to proceed when divorce or the death of a loved one puts those relationships on the line. Stepparents and biological parents should try to work together to come up with a solution that is in the best interests of children. If a stepparent is a source of stability, breaking the ties they have with their stepchildren is rarely beneficial. In cases where conflict is prevalent, stepparents may wish to consult a family law professional for advice on how to proceed. While it may be inappropriate to pursue custody, stepparents may wish to request visitation so they can maintain meaningful relationships with their stepchildren.