The family unit doesn’t always have to consist of the mother, father, three kids, and the dog. It has become a lot more diverse, escaping from the old traditions of what it means to be a family. Divorce is common, with almost 50% of marriages ending in divorce in the United States alone. However, with marriage comes kids and with divorce comes that complicated family dynamic.
Many parents may feel guilty and not know what is best for their children, however it is important to understand that this is a normal part of life. Soon enough you will find yourself with someone else and they will share that parental role with you. But what makes them the stepparent? And is a stepparent a legal guardian?
What Is A Stepparent?
A stepparent is when a person marries someone who has children. Once you are legally married, only then will you legally be deemed as those children’s stepparent. Although not biologically related, through marriage you are making the commitment to raise your partner’s children as your own, whether as a stepmother or a stepfather.
This isn’t to say that as soon as you hear wedding bells and you’ve signed that marriage certificate that the biological mother or father is no more. As a stepparent, you are not replacing the true parent. You are merely taking on a role and adapting the family unit.
Types Of Family Units
The dynamic of relationships has developed extensively over the years. In the early 20th century, the norm and expectation would be to have a standard family (biological mother and father, children), however over time things have changed.
Many people forced themselves to stay in unhappy marriages, just to keep that traditional family lifestyle and at one point (and still for some people today) divorce was looked down at because of religion. As a society and nation, the rules of partners and parenting has changed.
There are multiple types of family units which we can identify:
The nuclear family is your traditional family unit and there was a time when it was believed that having two parents in the household meant your children would be happier, stronger, and the home would be more stable. In the United States today, however, only 22% of families are a nuclear family.
An extended family is when you have two or more related adults in a household living together. This can be for a variety of reasons, such as religion or for financial stability. In an extended family it is the duty of all the adults within the household to work together to raise the children as well as to tend to household duties. People in an extended family may consist of aunts, uncles, cousins, partners.
More often are you finding single parent family units. This is where you have two adults living together who have made the choice not to have children. This can either be because they are not ready, because they don’t have any interest now or in the future to have children, or it can be because they are not able to bare children.
Single Parent Family
A single parent family unit is where the household contains one parent (this can be the mother or the father) who looks after the children. It is often you would find a single parent household after divorce, or if one parent did not want to be a part of the child’s life. This is one of the biggest changes we’ve seen in years gone by and is a big leap from the traditional nuclear family.
The stepfamily consists of two separate families merging into one through marriage (this is also known as a blended family). The stepfamily occurs after a parent has separated from the father/mother of their children and remarries, bringing that new partner (and sometimes new stepchildren) into their own household.
Is A Stepparent A Legal Guardian?
What Is A Legal Guardian?
A legal guardian as a person who has the legal authority to take care of an individual, and this authority is given by the court.
Based on this, unless due to exceptional circumstances, a stepparent is not automatically appointed a legal guardian. Even after two parents have divorced or have separated, they still have complete rights of their biological children.
When a stepparent has entered the family unit, this does not mean that the rights of the biological parents are extracted. This means that stepparents do not have the right to make any legal decisions.
How Does A Stepparent Become A Legal Guardian? Is It Possible?
It is very possible for stepparents to become their stepchild(ren)’s legal guardian. This is done be receiving a court ordered guardianship.
One thing to note is that receiving this legal guardianship can be obtained if one or both of the biological parents are either unable or unwilling to care for their child. Once you obtain this guardianship, however, you then have the same rights over a child as a biological parent would have.
Here are the steps to becoming a legal guardian:
Visit The Clerk’s Office
The first step is to visit the clerk’s office of your local courthouse and ask for the Petition of Guardian, a form that files your guardianship over a minor.
Complete The Form
You then need to complete the form and add any relevant documentation. It is important that you fill out this form honestly.
File The Petition
The next step is to file the petition with the same clerk and then send a copy out to the biological parent. You will also be required to pay a filing fee.
Attending The Hearing
Lastly, you will have to attend a hearing in front of a judge. At this hearing will be yourself, your spouse, the biological parent and in some cases the stepchild. This hearing is to determine whether your petition will go through and to see if the judge agrees. If so, the judge will then issue the guardianship order.
The Rights Of The Stepparent
A stepparent has a number of rights and there are many roles a stepparent should play to benefit their stepchildren. As a stepparent, your priority is the child. It is important to acknowledge that by marrying your spouse, you are also devoting your life to that child.
Introducing an alternative parental figure into the home can be challenging for some children. You may find that the child will feel uncomfortable or confused about the new family dynamic. You want to be accepted into the household and for the child to feel safe in your presence.
Nobody enjoys disciplining someone else’s child(ren), but when you become their stepparent you are having to take on these new responsibilities, responsibilities that might make you uncomfortable. You are now in charge of their health and wellbeing and it is important to play the supporting role in your spouse’s life.
You can enforce punishments for breaking rules, assign chores, implement curfews. You are doing all of this for the benefit of the child and to build that strong relationship.
As a stepparent you have complete control over where you would like to take your stepchild (so long as this is confirmed with the biological parent, of course). You have no legal binds which restricts you to only interacting with your stepchild at home. If you want to go to a coffee shop down the street, a neighboring city, or maybe on a vacation to another country, as a stepparent you have that right.
A stepparent without legal guardianship does not have any rights in deciding a stepchild’s schooling. All decisions have to be made by the biological parent only, although you can of course talk with your spouse independently. Anything official, however, is only done by the natural parent.
The stepparent does not have the legal right to consent to any medical treatment for their spouse’s child(ren), however this legal status can be altered by your spouse signing a consent form. This consent form allows the stepparent to make medical decisions for their child.
Stepparents And Divorce
What Happens If A Stepparent And Spouse Divorce? Do They Have Any Rights?
Divorce is common so there may be times where you remarry/find a new partner, just to find out the relationship isn’t working out anymore. The next route to go down is divorce, however this can be complicated in terms of the relationship between the stepparent and stepchild. What rights do they have?
If the divorce takes place when the stepson/stepdaughter is now an adult, the relationship is completely up to both parties. As they are both consenting adults, there is no need for legal demands – it is up to whether you want the relationship to continue.
However, if you have divorced and the stepchild is still under the age of 21/not a consenting adult, that is when things become complicated. The stepparent may choose to continue with life and not associate themselves with the stepchild, or they may have developed a deeper parental connection that they want to keep.
After divorce, the stepparent has the right to request visitation rights, and this is done on legal terms. Depending on the state, these visitation rights vary.
- 23 states have laws authorizing visitation rights
- 13 states allow third parties to request visitation rights
- Some other areas exclude stepparents from requesting visitation rights (this includes Alabama, Iowa, South Dakota and Florida)
- The rest of the US states do not have any laws regarding visitation rights for stepparents.
There is more to marriage than just walking down that aisle and signing legal documents. When you devote your life to your spouse you are also devoting your life to their children. However, you have to know that you are not replacing their biological parents and it is important for the child(ren) to know this too.
When entering the family as a new stepparent, you may feel the tension in the air. This is normal. It is completely fine and a normal occurrence for your partner’s child to feel uncertain of the new family situation, no matter how old they are.
They could be as young as a toddler and become confused or be a teenager angry at the sudden change. However, with work and dedication, you will be able to learn to be a good stepparent.
With becoming a stepparent, it is not only about morals – it is also about legality. Although you are active in your stepchild’s life and live under the same roof as them, this does not mean that you have all the legal rights of a biological parent.
You are not able to authorize medical treatment nor make final decisions on schooling. Unless stated by the courthouse otherwise, all of the rights go towards the biological parent.
This doesn’t mean you have no freedom with your stepchild. You have the freedom to create that bond, to become that extra parental figure for them. You can travel, take them places, love them like they are your own.
Becoming a stepparent can lead to a lot of pressure – you want to make sure the stepchild is happy as well as their biological parent – however, more and more are we seeing stepfamily units. This is a normal life experience and even if you are not considered a legal guardian, you are still their stepparent.