Do Step-Parents Have Custody Rights?

by Rowan Guthrie
happy family eating dinner together in the dining room

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

Blended families, where one or both parents have children from previous relationships, are becoming increasingly normal. Couples face unique challenges as they raise children while also building their new relationships. A common issue is stepparent custody rights.

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Stepparents often provide their stepchildren with love, support and guidance. However, when there’s a divorce or separation or the biological parent is no longer around, stepparents are in a difficult position.

What Are Stepparents’ Rights When It Comes to Child Custody?

This depends on several factors, including your state’s laws, the court’s decisions, the wishes of the biological parents and the best interests of the child. In most cases, stepparents have limited rights concerning child custody unless they've legally adopted their stepchildren or obtained a court order granting them custody or visitation rights.

Under the law, stepparents aren’t considered the legal parents of their stepchildren. Therefore, they don’t have the same rights and responsibilities as the child’s biological parents. The law recognizes the primacy of biological parents and presumes they're the best people to make decisions for their children (unless there’s evidence to the contrary).

However, this doesn’t mean stepparents have no role or influence in their stepchildren’s lives. They can still maintain a close and positive relationship with them and provide them with emotional and financial support, as long as the biological parents provide consent and cooperation.

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Do Stepparents Have Parental Rights?

The answer is no, unless they’ve legally adopted their stepchildren or a court has granted them parental rights. These are the legal rights and obligations parents have toward their children, such as the right to custody, visitation, decision-making, inheritance and child support. Parental rights are usually reserved for biological or adoptive parents with a legal and/or biological connection to the child.

However, stepparents may be able to obtain parental rights if they can prove they’ve established a parent-child relationship with their stepchildren and that granting them parental rights is in the child’s best interests. These situations may include:

  • The stepparent legally adopting the child, with the consent of the biological parents or the court
  • The stepparent being granted legal guardianship of the child by the court
  • The court granting the stepparent the status of de facto parent

Note: A de facto parent, also sometimes called a psychological parent, is a stepparent who's formed such a strong bond with their stepchild that terminating the relationship risks harming the child.

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Do Stepparents Have Visitation Rights?

As with the paternal rights question, the answer is no, unless they've legally adopted their stepchildren or a court order grants them visitation rights. Visitation rights are usually granted to the biological or adoptive parents, but not stepparents.

Stepparents may be able to obtain visitation rights if they can prove that it’s in the child’s best interests. This may happen in situations where the stepparent has:

  • Legally adopted the child
  • Been granted legal guardianship by the court
  • Been granted de facto parent status by the court

In most jurisdictions, stepparents can care for stepchildren during their spouse's parenting time. However, this has to do with the rights of the spouse as a parent to select childcare during their parenting time — not the rights of the stepparent. This can depend on the details of the custody orders.

Do Stepparents Have the Right to File for Custody?

No, except in cases where the stepparent has legally adopted the child or has been granted custody rights or de facto parent status by the court. It’s typically biological and adoptive parents who have custody rights, allowing them to make important decisions for the children daily, such as choosing their school and doctors.

It’s important to note that this article is for information purposes only and doesn’t constitute legal advice. To ensure you get the right legal advice on stepparents’ rights, you should contact an attorney who specializes in the subject. Each state has different rules and laws regarding how custody works, including when nonbiological parents may be able to get custody or visitation rights.

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