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July 19, 2023 Feature

Rights and Responsibilities of a Stepparent or Significant Other

Holly W. Kimmel

Congratulations on your marriage and instant family! You’ve just become a stepparent, joining approximately 40 percent of all married couples with children. Now that you’ve tied the knot, the law grants you and your spouse certain rights and responsibilities between the two of you, but it leaves many questions about your rights and responsibilities concerning your stepchildren.

If you’re old enough to recall The Brady Bunch, you may base your expectations as a stepparent on scenes from the sitcom that broadcast the experience of a blended family to American households. The show was rife with examples of daily life as a stepparent and was full of laughs, as well as some serious moments. In reality, it failed to paint the complete picture of a blended family because it did not show a situation where the other natural parent is still very much a part of the children’s lives. The show also left out the fact that in most states, stepparents have almost no legally recognized rights when it comes to decision-making and raising their stepchildren.

The lack of stepparent rights in connection with children who are now living in the same household as you, at least part of the time, is often surprising. Understandably, stepparents who have a loving relationship with their stepchildren expect that their marriage and operation as a family unit give them at least some rights similar to the rights of a parent. Learning that you have almost no legal rights as a stepparent can be confusing as it impacts your actions in everyday life and can have significant consequences if the marriage ends in divorce or the natural parent dies. Therefore, understanding your rights can help you maintain a happy, peaceful, and loving household and prepare for possible outcomes in the future.

Stepparent Rights: The Big Picture

In a practical sense, even without legally recognizable rights, most stepparents exercise some parental rights derived from the permission and expectation of their spouse. When you marry someone with children who spend even one overnight in your home, if not much more, you’ll naturally participate in the children’s daily lives, helping with homework, having dinner together, and tucking them into bed at night (depending on their age). Life with your stepchildren will also raise issues of discipline and decisions related to school, activities, and medical concerns. Your level of involvement in these decisions will depend on whether you view your situation from a legal or emotional perspective.

Under the law of most states, the legal bond between spouses does not create a legal bond with the children. Therefore, a stepparent has no right to make decisions for their stepchildren, just as they have no legal obligation to financially support their stepchildren. These rights and obligations remain with the natural parents even after their separation, divorce, and remarriage.

From a more practical and emotional point of view, the dynamics in your stepfamily may allow for your participation in child-related decisions through cooperation and agreement between you and your spouse. Always keep in mind, however, your decisions and actions are likely to be viewed and possibly objected to by the other custodial parent, which can result in heated emotions and stress for you, if not the whole family. For these reasons, it is in everyone’s best interest for the stepparent to maintain a positive relationship with the other natural parent whenever possible. You never know when you may need their consent or guidance when you are helping to raise their children, who are now also your stepchildren.

Based on these circumstances, a stepparent would be justified in feeling like they are irrelevant when it comes to the children they are now parenting and that they are walking on eggshells in their own household when the children are present. To minimize these uncertain feelings and difficult situations, understanding the rights and boundaries that come with your new stepparent role will benefit of the entire blended family.

Stepparents and Discipline

One way of viewing your rights and responsibilities as a stepparent is to put yourself in the shoes of a grandparent, another relative, or a babysitter charged with caring for the children. As belittling as that may sound, it simplifies the reality of your authority as a stepparent. When you are with the children, you are responsible for their health, well-being, and safety, which will involve setting boundaries and following through on disciplinary decisions. Yet, you are not responsible for making the decisions. Instead, you respect the natural parent’s perspective and decisions just like a grandma would (or should).

In effect, the parent makes the house rules. For example, the parent will decide the children’s chores, screen time, social media rules, and bedtime or curfew as well as potential repercussions if a rule is broken, and the stepparent will work with the parent to implement those decisions. In a healthy relationship, you should feel comfortable discussing these household rules with your spouse and arriving at mutually agreeable guidelines while recognizing that the parent makes the final decisions. It’s also important for you as a stepparent to enforce the household rules to ensure the children understand your authority and respect you as a stepparent. If, after learning the reality of your role in disciplining the children residing in your household, you’re thinking, “my house, my rules,” you are right. Of course, a stepparent has the right to make their own rules in their household, but in this situation, it’s more important to be cooperative than right. The better practice is to collaborate with the parent, just as married biological parents would be expected to work together to establish rules for their children.

School Decisions and Records

As a stepparent, you likely help your stepchildren with their homework, listen to their stories about teachers, learn about their friendships at school, and possibly hear about the daily drama. Being involved in the children’s lives, which often center around school, will naturally lead you to want to become involved in educational decisions. Under the law, decisions about a child’s education firmly belong to the custodial parents. However, a stepparent is a member of the family, so it’s likely that your spouse, and possibly the children, will value your opinions. In this sense, while you cannot make any final decision about the child’s education, you can certainly provide guidance and become an important part of the discussion.

Interestingly, despite the inability to make educational decisions, when a child lives at least part of the time with a stepparent, the stepparent has the right to access and review the stepchild’s school records. This right is granted by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows a custodial parent to grant permission to any person to access their child’s educational records. A stepparent does not need to be granted permission because a parent under FERPA is defined as “an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian.” In essence, as long as the child resides with you some of the time and you are caring for the child when the parent is not there, you meet the definition of parent for the purpose of obtaining educational records. Despite this right, it’s always best to have your spouse’s consent to maintain an honest relationship between the two of you, especially concerning the children, and it’s a good idea to obtain the written consent of your spouse to access educational records because school staff may not be apprised of FERPA regulations.

One question that often arises concerning a stepparent’s involvement in a child’s education is whether a stepparent has a right to attend a school function, such as a parent-teacher conference. It should be no surprise that a stepparent has no legal right to attend a school meeting. Absent a legal right in this scenario, it is important to consider whether the stepparent’s attendance at a parent-teacher conference or another school event will benefit or cause difficulty for the custodial parents, the child, or the educator. Even if both custodial parents agree that the stepparent can attend, this is one situation where the saying “three (or four in the case of two stepparents) is a crowd” might apply because it could be difficult for the teacher to address all parents and stepparents involved. On the other hand, a school event such as a sport or game, play, concert, or graduation will not require an educator to interact with the parents or stepparents, and the children will likely feel supported by having their parents and stepparents in attendance. The bottom line is where there are no legal rights, common sense is necessary, competition should be removed, and the best interest of the children and custodial parents, who agreed to co-parent only with each other, should determine when stepparents become involved in school-related meetings and activities.

Stepparents and Medical Decisions

Stepparents can and should seek medical attention for children in an emergency, for instance, by driving them to the hospital. However, stepparents do not have the legal right to consent to medical treatment for the child because that right belongs only to the biological parents. That can be scary if you are the only parent available when a child needs immediate medical attention; but in the event of a true emergency, medical professionals can act without parental permission. To prepare for a possible emergency, the legal right to make medical decisions for stepchildren can be conveyed to a stepparent by way of a consent form, but only when both biological parents agree to grant this level of authority. If this is a viable option for all parties involved, the form should be signed well in advance of any emergency to ensure the best care for the child if both custodial parents are unavailable.

Stepparents and Travel

Generally speaking, a stepparent may travel alone with the stepchildren with their spouse’s permission. However, if your spouse has joint custody of the children, your ability to travel with the children may be determined by the parenting agreement between the custodial parents. Often, that parenting agreement will dictate travel permissions, restrictions, and arrangements with the children. If your spouse has permission to travel with the children under the parenting agreement, you can travel with the children during your spouse’s parenting time with or without your spouse. When you and your stepchildren travel, it’s best to travel with a consent form signed by your spouse, their natural parent, to avoid any questions about your relationship with the children. While you do not need consent from the other custodial parent, obtaining consent is recommended, if possible.

Stepparent Rights After Divorce or Death

No matter how many years someone is a stepparent or how close and loving the step relationship is, in most cases a divorce from the natural parent or the death of the natural parent terminates the legal relationship between the stepparent and stepchildren. The stepparent does not have any custody rights, and very few states offer visitation rights. Of course, if the children are adults at the time of the divorce or death, the decision to continue the relationship is between the stepparent and the adult children. If the children are still minors, however, the decisions lie with the custodial parents, just as they did during the marriage.

If you want to continue your relationship with your stepchildren after a divorce and the children are minors, it is possible to agree to some form of timesharing or visitation with your former spouse. That time, however, will likely be during the former spouse’s parenting time, because a stepparent’s time with the children should not interfere with the other custodial parent’s parenting time unless that parent agrees. Similarly, in the event of your spouse’s death, it may be possible to spend time with the children if the living custodial parent consents. This is another example of why it’s important to maintain a positive relationship with your stepchildren’s other parent. Hopefully, the other parent will recognize the strength and significance of your relationship with the children and agree that it’s in their best interest to continue a relationship with you. Without such consent, your options as a stepparent are limited.

It may offer some solace to know that these rights are not granted to other family members either. The bottom line is that the ultimate decisions concerning a child’s care custody remain with the children’s parents, who can decide that a stepparent is not permitted to see their children. For these reasons, a stepparent may want to address with their spouse their concerns and desire to see the children in the event that they divorce or the spouse who is the natural parent passes away.

Petitioning the Court for Visitation

Some states recognize the visitation rights of a stepparent, while other states have not taken a position on the issue. In all of these states, it’s possible to petition the court for visitation rights, at which time the court will consider many factors, including your level of involvement in the children’s lives and why the custodial parent or parents’ object to such visitation. The petition will not necessarily be granted. Unfortunately, if you live in one of the states that specifically exclude stepparents from the right to visitation, such a petition will not even be considered.

The Rights of Significant Others

With the formality of marriage on the decline, there are instances where a significant other may be living with a parent long-term and acting as a stepparent without the official title. The absence of a marriage certificate does not significantly alter your rights concerning the children because marriage grants very few rights. Some states provide people who act as parents the right to visitation, so it’s best to check the law where the child resides to determine your rights as an unmarried but significant other.

Securing Legal Rights as a Stepparent

It is possible to secure legal rights as a stepparent through adoption, but you’ll need both parents’ permission. If the other natural parent consents to the adoption, their rights as a parent will be permanently terminated. If there is no other parent with legal rights, such as when the other parent has died, or their rights as a parent were already terminated, you will only need your spouse’s consent for adoption. It’s also possible for a stepparent to become the legal guardian of the child, but guardianship is typically pursued when one or both parents are not able to care for the child. While guardianship rights will provide a stepparent with the same rights as a parent, the rights will cease when the child reaches the age of 18.

The Reality of Stepparents Rights

Stepparents can be an incredibly important part of their stepchildren’s lives. They can change a single-parent household into a family environment, provide stability, and contribute to the love and care of the children. Unfortunately, the lack of recognition and legal rights for stepparents can leave them feeling insignificant, but their importance is not diminished in the eyes of the stepchildren or spouse. The reality of life as a stepparent is that legal recognition is not necessary for a stepparent’s involvement in raising the children if they have the cooperation and consent of their spouse. Collaboration to create an environment and relationship that works for the entire family will make legal intervention mostly irrelevant. The lack of a legal bond between the stepparent and children will not impact the loving bond they can create on their own.

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Holly W. Kimmel

Blank Rome LLP

Holly W. Kimmel is of counsel at Blank Rome LLP in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She focuses her practice on complex family and matrimonial law matters. Holly is a skilled litigator and a Supreme Court Certified Family Law Meditator in the State of Florida. She is a certified divorce coach and earned a master’s degree in social work so that she could better understand and assist clients in resolving family disputes.