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Stepparent Rights

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Do Stepparents Have Rights?

Stepparents often develop close bonds with their stepchildren, which helps enforce a loving environment for children struggling through the divorce of their biological parents. While many stepparents take over the role of parenting the stepchildren, their rights are limited.

When biological parents divorce, they end the marriage. They do not end their relationships with their children. Thus the rights of biological parents do not cease upon divorce. This makes it difficult for stepparents to have any legal rights over the children.

In addition, sometimes, stepparents divorce from the biological parent. While the stepparent may have forged a strong relationship with the children during that marriage, the marriage is now over. The stepparent has no legal status or right to visitation like a biological parent would.

Stepparent Visitation and Custodial Rights

Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000), is a U.S. Supreme Court case that discussed stepparent visitation and custodial rights. In Troxel, the biological parent and stepparent divorced. The stepparent was given visitation rights of the stepchildren but desired more expansive visitation. The biological parent objected to this. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the biological parent had a fundamental, constitutional right to decide how to care for and control his or her child, including making custody and visitation decisions.

Troxel means that when the stepparent and biological parent are in a dispute over custody or visitation, the biological parent’s decision trumps that of the stepparent. The stepparent has no child custody rights.

In addition, the stepparent has no legal right to make any decisions for the child. For instance, the stepparent cannot dictate where the child goes to school, what medicine the child takes, or what to do in the event of a medical emergency.

However, if the stepparent has legally adopted the child, the stepparent does have legally cognizable rights to make legal and medical decisions. The stepparent then has the same legal rights as a biological parent because the law now recognizes the stepparent as a parent.

How to Adopt Stepchildren

In most states, you will need to follow the below steps to initiate the stepparent adoption process.

  1. Obtain consent from the birth parents to adopt the child. If one of the birth parents’ parental rights have been terminated due to neglect or any other reason, that parent’s legal rights no longer exist. Thus consent is not necessary.
  2. If one parent refuses to give consent, you may be able to request that their rights be terminated. You must prove that the biological parent abandoned, neglected or abused the child or that the parent is either unfit to parent or is not the biological parent.
  3. Petition the court for adoption. This will be state-specific, but most states should have petition forms that you can fill in and file to initiate the process.
  4. Attend court hearings. Some cases may be simple, especially if both biological parents consent to the adoption. However, others may require home visits, counseling, and proof of financial ability to care for the child.

Do I Need a Lawyer to Enforce Stepparent Rights?

The law is not on your side as a stepparent. However, there are some exceptions. An experienced family law attorney can help you navigate the system, determine your rights, explore your options, negotiate visitation or custody, and advocate for your position in court.

Photo of page author Jessica Long

, LegalMatch Legal Writer

Last Modified: 04-24-2015 09:43 AM PDT

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