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Do step-parents have any legal rights over their step-kids?

On Behalf of | Jul 23, 2021 | Child Custody |

After a divorce or permanent breakup, most people plan to enter into a new romantic relationship at some point. There are many coparenting challenges that may arise during the period of dating, but what about when a new partner has been chosen? What rights and obligations do step-parents have?

It can be frustrating, but step-parents have few legal rights or obligations when it comes to their step-children. In the large majority of situations, the two biological parents have equal legal decision-making authority and share parenting time. A step-parent can be a helper to one of the biological parents but has no independent legal authority to make decisions about school, medical care, religious upbringing or other matters of importance.

Step-parents should take things slowly

Once you’re married to the parent of your step-children, you will likely have a great deal of influence over the children’s upbringing even if you don’t have legal decision-making authority over them.

Your job is to treat your step-children well, support your partner in their parenting and try to build a loving, or at least trust-based, relationship with the kids.

Before you begin step-parenting, you should discuss your expectations with your partner. How much do they expect you to do? Are you allowed to mete out discipline? If you are both going to parent the kids, you’ll need to set up those expectations in advance and start slow, gradually building trust with the children.

Some kids open up right away, while others take time to trust a new adult. Some kids will welcome a new step-parent, while others will resist any change to their original family unit. The keys to success are respect, stability and compassion. Recognize that you are building a new family unit. Embrace this.

Take the process of building a step-parent/step-child relationship slowly. Start out by having fun and getting to know each other. Then add in some every-day activities. Make any parenting changes gradually and let the kids set the pace.

Can I adopt my stepchild?

Yes, if your spouse’s ex (the child’s birth parent) agrees to terminate their parental rights, has had their parental rights terminated involuntarily, or is deceased. You will be required to obtain the termination of parental rights from the child’s other birth parent. In some cases, such as when you cannot locate the birth parent, you may be able to petition the court for an involuntary judicial termination of their rights.

In order to adopt your stepchild, you must have also been married to your spouse (a birth parent) for a year and lived with your stepchild for six months.

As long as your stepchild is not a ward of the court, you will not need to be certified for adoption. There need be no placement suitability study or accounting review. There will be a home visit by an official from the state and a court hearing.

What happens if I divorce my step-children’s parent? Do I have any rights?

In some cases, you may have rights. In Arizona, non-parents can sometimes get parenting time with children with whom they have a parent-like relationship. This relationship is called “acting in loco parentis.” If you have acted in loco parentis to your step-children for a significant period of time and are divorcing their parent, you may be able to file a petition for parenting time, called “visitation.” This will only be granted if it is in the children’s best interest.

When deciding whether to allow a person acting in loco parentis to have visitation, the court is expected to give special weight to the legal parents’ opinions about what is in the children’s best interest. Therefore, it is less likely you will be granted visitation if the kids’ parents oppose it.

Even if you are granted visitation, you will not have legal decision-making authority. However, you could seek this authority in the rare case that both of the kids’ legal parents are unfit enough that the court finds it would be significantly detrimental for the kids to remain in their care.

Each blended family is unique, with its own challenges and triumphs. If you need to understand your legal rights and obligations as a step-parent, talk to an experienced family law attorney.