Understanding Stepparents’ Rights and Obligations During and After Divorce

During marriage, a stepparent relationship may become crucial to a parent and child. However, the nature of their relationship may take an unexpected twist when the marriage crashes. 

The “conventional” family of the fifties and sixties you might have seen on television is not so typical anymore. Studies show that less than half of all children in the US live in such households. Blended families (homes with a blend of biological and step relationships between children and adults) have become much more typical. 

Stepparents and stepchildren mostly have close and endearing relationships with each other. But what becomes of such relationships after the dissolution of a blended family? 

There have yet to be any legal updates on the stepparenting relationship. That is why most stepparents lose their rights to uphold their relationships with their stepchildren after a divorce. 

Your Legal Roles as a Stepparent During a Divorce

You still have the same legal roles in your family as you did during the marriage while your divorce is still pending. Except in circumstances where state law makes it mandatory, you typically have no legal roles toward your stepchildren. The exception is when you have been acting in “loco parentis.”

Family laws differ by state based on the legal duties of a stepparent during and after divorce. Currently, 20 states have statutes outlining some roles of a stepparent to their stepchildren during or after marriage dissolution, depending on the context. These states include Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Kentucky, New York, Nevada, New Jersey, Montana, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Missouri, North Dakota, North Carolina, Utah, Vermont, South Dakota, Oregon, Oklahoma, and Washington. 

Your Rights as a Stepparent

Every state has provisions on the rights and responsibilities of biological parents to their kids during divorce. However, this is not often the case for stepparents. 

Perhaps, as a stepparent, you have been there for your stepchild since they were young. You might have supported them in every way as their biological parents would have done. If you have developed a mutual and loving relationship with the child, they may see you as their parent. 

But from a legal perspective, you have negligible legal rights as a stepparent in a divorce context. Most courts identify the biological parents as the preferred adults to decide for their children. Therefore, it becomes challenging for stepparents to get custody or visitation rights after marriage dissolution except under some circumstances. 

Before recently, family laws have focused on upholding the conventional marriage and parenting structure. The system ignored the place of stepparents, but laws are gradually changing to create space for stepparents’ rights. 

Specifically, some jurisdictions have recognized stepparents as the “persons with legitimate interest” class. It gives stepparents the right to demand custody or visitation. 

The Legal Implications of a Step Relationship 

As a stepparent, you can still explore some legal options to retain your relationship with your stepchild after divorce. The two options you can explore are:

Stepparent Adoption

The best way to safeguard your legal right as a stepparent is to maintain a relationship with your stepchild via legal adoption. The court will recognize you as the child’s legal parent during the divorce or death of the biological parent. 

It gives you every right to seek custody, visitation, pay, or collect child support during divorce. You can become the child’s guardian if their other parent dies. 

However, children cannot legally have three parents. It means the uninvolved biological parent needs to surrender their legal rights to the child before adoption can happen. If the biological parent declines, the court may force the process if there is sufficient evidence that the parent has no active involvement in the child’s upbringing or appears to have a harmful or dangerous influence on the child. 

As an Individual with a Legitimate Interest

Courts always prioritize the interests of the child in a divorce setting. That is why some states now identify stepparents as “persons with a legitimate interest.” If you fall under this category, you may be eligible to demand custody or visitation with your former or soon-to-be-former stepchildren. 

The court does not award stepparents child custody under normal circumstances. However, the court may grant you visitation rights if you prove that severing the stepparent-child relationship will affect the child’s well-being. But the rights would also entail a financial responsibility toward the kid’s upbringing. 

What Is Your Stepparent Status After Divorce?

During marriage, you have played an incredible role in your stepchild’s life and vice-versa. Although you cease to be a stepparent immediately after your marriage dissolution, it does not remove the solid bond and connection you have developed with the child. 

If you can work cooperatively with your estranged spouse, you can develop practical solutions that will help to maintain the relationship with the child. For example, your ex may agree to give you a visitation period with the child in exchange for some financial support. 

Can You Adopt Your Stepchildren?

Legal adoption is a smart way of preserving your legal rights with your stepchildren. The courts see you as their legal parent after adoption. It means you have the same rights and roles as a legal parent, including demanding custody or visitation rights in a divorce. 

However, never forget that adoption requires one of the biological parents to forgo their parental rights. If you can overcome this uphill task, then you have bright chances. 

Can You Be a Legal Guardian?

The essence of a guardian is to stabilize and support a child when their legal parents are unyielding or unable to cater to them adequately. Although you are not an automatic legal guardian to your stepchildren, you can assume a guardianship duty. 

The biological parents still have all the child’s parental rights, but during an emergency, the child could enjoy the guardian’s security and legal rights. 

A step parent’s rights and responsibilities, if any, are complex in a divorce. They also differ by state. Therefore, it is essential to understand your state’s family laws when deciding on divorce and your relationship with your stepchild. 

Engage a Lawyer

The best way to understand your rights is to consult the right family lawyer. An attorney can tell you your rights based on state laws and how you can achieve your aims,” says attorney Matthew F. Dolan of Dolan Divorce Lawyers, PLLC.  

They will try as much as possible to preserve your relationship and bond with your stepchild despite divorce.