Many stepparents grow very close to their spouse’s children, and some stepparents come to be like parents to their stepchildren. During a divorce, however, stepparents can lose all legal rights to their former spouse’s children. This can result in a loss of contact with the children, which can be traumatic to the stepparent and the stepchild. However, any stepparent who wants to maintain a relationship with his or her stepchildren after a divorce can gain legal rights to the children.
A stepparent that adopts his or her spouse’s child before a divorce gains all legal rights afforded to a biological parent. To adopt a stepchild, the uninvolved parent (the child’s biological parent) must agree to give up his or her legal rights to the child. No child can have three legal parents. If the child’s biological parent does not agree to give up his or her rights, a court can terminate rights to the child if there is proof that the biological parent is not involved with the child, or is a harmful influence.
Unless he or she has already legally adopted the child, in a divorce a stepparent’s legal ties to his spouse’s children are cut. If not, it may still be possible to maintain involvement by seeking legal custody. The stepparent must prove that he or she has a strong relationship with the child. In some cases, primary custody may even be awarded.
Even if a stepparent is not awarded, or does not seek, primary custody, it is still possible to maintain a relationship with the ex-spouse’s children. Visitation rights may be awarded to a stepparent in the divorce agreement. These stepparent rights come with parental responsibilities. A stepparent awarded visitation rights may also be required to pay child support or otherwise assist the primary caregiver in childcare.
The most important consideration in determining the stepparent’s rights after a divorce is the relationship between the child and stepparent. An involved stepparent who seeks visitation or custody of the child is more likely to get it than a stepparent who does not assert himself or herself. The court considers the preferences of older children, so if a stepparent and child have a close relationship, the child’s familial feelings probably result in at least some parental rights being granted to the stepparent.
Divorce laws vary by state, so be sure to speak to a lawyer to find out the laws in your state before you pursue rights to your spouse’s children.