Do Stepparents Have Legal Rights to Stepchildren?

When two families combine as one, there are many questions that arise. For example, do stepparents have legal rights to stepchildren?

Stepparents do not generally have any legal rights to their stepchildren unless the stepparent adopts the child. As with all things in life, the rights a stepparent has over a stepchild may vary depending on a blended family’s own unique circumstances.

Before we dive into the rights that a stepparent may or may not have, let’s first take a look at what actually defines a stepparent.

What Is a Stepparent?

In short, a stepparent is someone who assumes the role of parent, is married to one of the biological parents of a child, and is not a biological parent. So if you are not married to your partner, you are not technically a stepparent.

Stepparents do not have any legal rights to their stepchildren, so being married or not married doesn’t change the definition of the role you play in the children’s lives.

A couple with a young step child

What Are My Stepparenting Legal Responsibilities?

In most states, a stepparent has a legal responsibility to financially contribute to the care of their stepchild residing in their home. For starters, it’s the right thing to do, as children are dependents who require the assistance of adults for their food, shelter, and other needs.

Secondly, caring for a stepchild under your roof is a legal expectation.

Is a Stepparent a Legal Guardian?

A stepparent’s status as a stepchild’s legal guardian is not automatic. After a separation or divorce, the child’s legal custody and visitation rights stay with both of the child’s biological parents, and only in the most extreme cases are they given to a stepparent.

Unless you have taken legal action to get this right, you do not have the power to make legal choices for your stepchild.

Adopting Your Stepchild & Legal Rights

State laws in the United States regulate all types of adoption, including stepparent adoption. Most States make it simpler for stepparents to adopt children, however, state regulations and exclusions for stepparents differ.

If your family needs legal representation, if you need to have been married to the child’s parent or lived with the child for a specific period of time, or if you need to have a home study, for instance, state regulations may vary.

Who Must Consent to Stepchild Adoption?

If you wish to adopt a stepchild, you will more than likely need the approval of the non-custodial parent and your partner who is the other biological parent (requirements vary by State). The noncustodial parent’s approval means that they are giving up all of their rights and obligations, including paying child support.

Additionally, an older child must agree to be adopted by their stepparent in almost all States.

The minimum age at which a child’s permission is required varies by state, although generally speaking, it is between 10 and 14 years old.

Learn what to do when a stepchild is jealous of a new baby.

Do Stepparents Have Visitation Rights After Divorce?

Even though you are unlikely to obtain custody of your stepchildren, stepparents frequently request and are granted visitation privileges following a divorce from the children’s biological parent. Obtaining visiting privileges strongly depends on the child’s best interests.

The court will probably want you to have access to the child if you have a close, lasting relationship with them that is essential to their happiness and growth.

Do Stepparents Pay Child Support After Divorce?

In several states, stepparents are required by law to contribute financially to the care of any stepchildren residing in their homes. However, when parents separate, this commitment generally expires. Typically, only the biological parents are responsible for paying child support.

Of course, there are exceptions. You most likely will be required to pay child support if you formally adopted the children, for instance.

Can Stepchildren Inherit From Stepparents?

Inheritance rights do not apply to stepchildren unless you have formally adopted them. You must expressly designate your stepchildren as beneficiaries of at least one estate planning vehicle, such as a will, trust, or beneficiary designation if you want them to inherit from you.

Stepparents and Discipline

Stepchildren will be pushing some buttons and exploring the limits of the new family dynamic. You should concentrate on strengthening your relationship with the stepchild while letting the biological parent handle the majority of the disciplinary implementation. 

Here are some tips to help you along your way:

  • Try not to insist on too many changes too fast. The children have already undergone family-structure changes, and too much too fast could likely have a negative impact on the child’s behavior.
  • Establish an understood level of respect that will be expected within the home. The stepparent will respect and be kind to the stepchild, and the stepchild will respect and be kind to the stepparent.
  • Communicate with your spouse how you are feeling. The transition will take time to adjust to. Having an open line of communication with your spouse will help.
  • Make efforts to get to know your stepchild. Show an interest in their activities. Go fishing together, shoot some hoops, and have some fun. The more you connect with your stepchild, the more they will let their guard down with you.
  • Understand that any negative behavior from a stepchild is likely not because of you personally but rather due to their feelings of loss and grief over the family they had. It will take time to get used to their new life.
  • Reward positive behaviors.
  • Expect to be tested. Children will naturally want to test their new boundaries to see what those boundaries actually are. Stepchildren will also likely play both parents against each other to test how much control they have in the new family dynamics.
  • Don’t be a pushover. You want your stepchildren to like you, of course. But give in to everything, and they won’t respect you the way you want them to.

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Stepparents and School Decisions

Stepparents do not have the authority to make decisions regarding a stepchild’s education if they do not have legal guardianship.

Although you may absolutely engage in the decision-making process by talking to your spouse about your educational options, you do not necessarily have the right to make these decisions on your own.

The child’s biological parents, who still have legal custody of the child, are responsible for making decisions directly pertaining to the child’s education.

Stepparents and School Records

Stepparents have the right to access and examine their stepchildren’s academic records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). As long as the stepparent lives with the stepchild for at least some of the time, they are considered to be “an individual acting as a parent in the absence of a parent or guardian” for purposes of FERPA.

Stepparents and Medical Decisions

Since a stepparent does not automatically become a parent by virtue of their connection (marrying a parent), they are not permitted to provide their approval for their stepchild’s medical care.

As they are not parents, relatives including grandparents, aunts, and uncles are also not permitted to provide their approval for a minor relative to get medical care.

It’s important to note that if a stepparent or family member legally adopts a child, the answer changes since the stepparent or family member is now the child’s legal parent.

Because stepparents frequently help with parenting chores, such as providing transportation to doctor’s visits, the scenario of an unadopted stepchild poses a frequent issue for parents and healthcare professionals.

Healthcare professionals may decide to create a written authorization form that parents may use to authorize (i.e., consent to) the treatment of their minor child and to allow the stepparent to submit their child for such treatment in order to cope with this situation.

In this situation, the authorization should include a phone number that the healthcare practitioner may use to get in touch with the parent and confirm the validity of the permission as well as the parent’s ongoing consent.

There are exceptions, as there are in everything.

Do stepchildren have any inheritance rights? Learn more here.

Marrying a Partner with Children: Things to Consider

Here are some things to consider before making the ultimate decision to get married to someone with children:

  • Realize you will not be number one in your partner’s eyes; their child will be.
  • Understand that your partner will have a continued relationship with their ex.
  • Discuss with your partner what your role will and will not be within the family unit.
  • What will be the do’s and don’t’s of disciplining the child?
  • Do the children like you? Do you sense any hidden resentment there?
  • How do you feel about the children? Consolidating households will be quite a challenge.
  • Do either you or your potential spouse want more children?

When a relationship is in its beginning stages, everything seems so romantic and perfect. Over time, reality sets in, and we see things in a whole new light.

Think long and hard about what you will be getting yourself into before you marry someone with children. If you’ve considered all aspects of what being a stepparent entails and still wish to proceed, awesome!

Being a stepparent can be such a wonderful thing for children who need good role models in their lives.

Stepparent and Stepchild After Divorce

When a stepparent divorces the children’s biological parent, things may get even more complicated because many stepparents shoulder full responsibility for parenting their stepchildren and frequently form meaningful relationships with them.

Let’s go over some common questions stepparents have when faced with a divorce and what that will mean for their stepchildren.

Do Stepparents Have to Pay Child Support?

A stepparent is typically not required to provide child support for a spouse’s child from a prior relationship. The courts routinely disregard how much money a stepparent earns. Every state agrees that requiring a stepparent to provide child support for their stepchildren is unfair.

Only when a stepparent adopts their stepchildren is he or she then directly liable for child support.

Stepparent Visitation Rights

Unless a stepparent formally adopts the child, they rarely have any legal claim to visitation or custody of the child. In some situations, obtaining visiting privileges is strongly influenced by the child’s best interests.

The court will probably want the stepparent to have access to the child if they have a close, loving relationship with them that is essential to their happiness and growth.

Stepparent Rights After Divorce

Stepparents most often do not have any claim to child custody following divorce. The law will often accept your stepchild’s parent’s decision if they decide they do not want you to be a part of their lives. A stepparent may, however, ask the court for custody or visitation under rare situations.

Maintaining a Relationship with a Stepchildren After Divorce

Your ex will hopefully acknowledge the significant impact you have on your stepchildren’s lives and agree to let you keep in touch. Reassure the children that the divorce hasn’t diminished your affection for them and that you want to stay in touch if your ex is cooperative.

Remain Civil with Your Ex

Remaining civil with your ex during a divorce has many benefits. Below are just a few:

  • You are setting an example for your stepchildren that breakups don’t have to be mean and nasty.
  • Getting along and being kind to one another demonstrates healthy communication.
  • With less tension between the two ex-spouses, the children feel less anxious and have permission to continue enjoying the stepparent that they no longer live with.

Establish a Visitation Plan with Ex

When the child and a stepparent have a history of healthy, loving communication and care about each other, it’s encouraged to put together a visitation plan after divorce so that the stepparent and child can continue that relationship.

Putting one’s differences aside for the sake of the child is highly encouraged, especially when a continued relationship with the stepparent is in the child’s best interest.

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Stepparent Boundaries

Despite their best intentions to be caring, a stepparent could unintentionally cross boundaries. Or, they could adopt a different parenting approach from what the youngster is accustomed to. In any case, it can strain relationships within the family and be detrimental to all parties.

Respecting a Stepchild’s Boundaries

A stepparent may want to bond with their stepchild as soon as possible. However, the child might not always agree with the stepparent, which can be frustrating and perplexing for the stepparent.

Most children find it difficult when their family structure changes and they must go through this adjustment on their own timetable.

Children frequently suffer from their own sentiments of loss and experience grief for the loss of their previous family.

When stepparents are demanding, pushy, or inconsiderate of the child’s pace, or if they take the role of a parent before they have earned the child’s trust, respect, and connection, this may put a significant amount of cognitive strain on the youngster.

Without spending the time and effort to allow it to happen organically, stepparents frequently assume they will instantly have their stepchild’s respect and confidence.

On the other hand, children need time to figure out how they will get along with the new stepparent and how the stepparent’s presence will affect their family.

Badmouthing the Child’s Parent

Stepparents may not have the best relationship with their partner’s ex, i.e. the child’s other parent. However, no matter how much they dislike them or disagree with their actions, bad-mouthing them to the child can cross a boundary, even if the child is the one complaining about something they’ve done.

Disciplining a Stepchild

When acting as the stepchild’s disciplinarian at the beginning of their relationship, stepparents may cross boundaries.

The child might not have considered the stepparent to be a parent and could object to any efforts the stepparent makes to impose rules.

When a Stepparent Seems to Try to Replace the Child’s Other Parent

Stepparents may attempt to take on the role of a parent by pressuring the child into activities typically designated for their parent.

For instance, they can try to involve the youngster in planned parent-child events or demand that the child use the pronouns “mom” or “dad” for them.

This may also occur if the child’s parent is no longer there, such as in the case of a deceased or estranged parent.

The youngster might not appreciate the stepparent’s attempt to fill in for their absent parent, especially if it appears that the stepparent doesn’t value the child’s attachment to and memory of their parent.

How to Prevent Overstepping Stepchild Boundaries

A stepparent can take the following actions to prevent crossing boundaries:

  • Let the Parent Discipline: Stepparents should control their responses regarding punishment and leave it to the biological parent.
  • The Stepparent’s Relationship with the Child May be Different: It’s critical to recognize and accept that the stepparent-stepchild relationship might be different from the child’s relationship with their parents. 
  • Give the Child Time: Without being intrusive, the stepparent can develop a relationship with the child by respecting their process, giving them time to feel at ease, and winning their trust.
  • Respect Different Parenting Styles: Stepparents must cooperate with the parents of their stepchild and respect their parenting philosophy.
  • Clearly Define Roles: From the outset, stepparents must be honest with themselves and the child about the role they will play in the family.

Legal Guardianship of a Stepchild

Stepparents have relatively little legal rights, despite the fact that many of them are deeply involved in their stepchildren’s daily lives and develop strong emotional relationships with them.

State-by-state differences in family law mean that many stepparents are left without the legal authority to raise their stepchildren when the child’s biological parents aren’t around, have passed away, or are at odds with the stepparent.

Changing your legal standing in relation to your stepchild’s care may be possible by becoming their guardian.

75 percent of stepfamilies have problems because they lack access to services as a stepfamily, according to the Stepfamily Foundation.

According to a recent Pew Research Center research, 13% of American people are stepparents, and 40% of all married households with children in the country are blended families.

However, stepparents receive minimal assistance from the law.

Legal Guardianship Options for Stepparents

Adopting the stepchild or taking on the role of the stepchild’s legal guardian are the two main options for a stepparent to acquire additional legal rights. In certain areas, parents can give a stepparent power of attorney to act on their behalf when making choices for their children’s health or education.

When thinking about taking these actions, please speak with a competent family law specialist in your state as the procedures for adopting a stepchild and becoming a legal guardian differ substantially from state to state.

Adopting a stepchild and being the stepchild’s legal guardian are two very different things. Adoption is a permanent arrangement, but legal guardianships are transient.

Legal guardianships typically expire when a child reaches the age of 18 or when the circumstances that led to the guardianship, often the absence or incapacity of a biological parent, have been resolved.

Legal Guardianship Over Stepchildren

Always speak with an attorney because the forms and processes for gaining legal guardianship differ significantly from state to state. Typically, you must submit a petition for the kind of guardianship you choose to the clerk’s office of the court that supervises guardianships in your state.

You will require a copy for the court and the stepchild’s other parent, as well as for each individual you are obligated to notify. The original copy will be kept by the court clerk, and the others will be noted as filed.

Adopting a Stepchild

The legal tie between the adoptive parent and the other biological parent is severed when a stepchild is adopted, which is another distinction between adopting a stepchild and becoming the stepchild’s legal guardian.

This implies that the parent no longer has any parental rights, including custody, visitation, or financial responsibility for the child, including having to pay child support.

This is a big step to take, and most courts are very cautious about awarding this status, saving it for situations in which the other biological parent has passed away, has been negligent toward the child, or is unable to care for the child due to a disability.

Additionally, if the child is beyond a particular age, several jurisdictions require that they provide their consent to the adoption as well.


Trina Greenfield - Adoption Author

About the Author:
Trina Greenfield is passionate about providing information to those considering growing their family. Trina does not run an adoption agency. Her website is strictly information-based, so she is able to provide unbiased, credible information that she hopes will help guide those along their journey.