According to the Berkley Law School at the University of California, laws on step parenting vary by state, but generally, a stepparent or partner in the role of stepparent, whether with the custodial parent or non-custodial parent, has no rights in regard to stepchildren.
A stepparent adoption may occur if the non-custodial parent has died or legally gives up their parental rights. At this point, a stepparent holds the same rights as a biological parent. This is also true if a biological parent has passed away and the living biological parent gives legal guardianship to the stepparent. This may also be implemented through a will from the biological parent who is partnered with the stepparent in the event of their own death and provided the non-custodial parent has also passed away or has signed away their rights.
A stepparent may raise a stepchild as one of their own for the majority of the child’s life, but if a provision is not made in the will (or prior) for the legal guardianship of the child, the nearest living biological relative can be given custody of the child unless they sign away their rights.
Stepparents should be aware that either biological parent can have a provision in the custody agreement that any person who would fill the role of stepparent, either through marriage or a non-marriage living arrangement, has no control whatsoever in the decisions regarding the stepchild, especially in disciplinary, educational, or medical matters.
Consequently, unless the stepparent chooses to leave an inheritance to a stepchild (non-adopted) in their will or other arrangements are made ahead of time, such as a trust, a stepchild has no rights to the estate of the stepparent, even if that stepparent served as primary support for the child and the biological non-custodial parent provided no support.
State and Federal laws are inconsistent on how they recognize the stepfamily. States lean in the direction of viewing the stepparent as a stranger with no rights or responsibilities, and also in determining public benefits where criteria is based on family size.
Federal laws sometimes view a stepparent as a provider and the stepchild as a dependent of that stepparent, including if the stepparent is in the military, allowing the stepchild to be eligible for insurance through the military, as well as other benefits. Other Federal programs do not recognize the stepchild as a dependent.
According to Divorcesource.com unless there is clear evidence of abuse or a custodial provision prohibiting discipline, states tend to look away if a child is disciplined by a stepparent, such as spanking that does not leave bruises (this classifies as abuse) and consider minor corrections as a part of parenting. They cite several states where it is the statute to allow stepparent (referred to in the laws as ‘loco parentis’) to discipline the stepchild as long as it is not excessive, and that statistics show stepparents tend to discipline more harshly stepchildren than their own biological children. A non-custodial parent can make a complaint to authorities in this regard causing social services to monitor the household by court order if necessary.
First and foremost, children, unless abused or abandoned, love both their biological parents. Even in the case of abuse, children may be attached to the other parent. Let them know you are not out to replace the non-custodial or missing parent, especially if the other parent is deceased.
If it is not already of a provision of the custody agreement, never speak ill of the other (non-partner) parent. Children are all too often put in the middle of tension between custodial and non-custodial parents. Offering quiet support to the parent to which you are partnered in private is one thing; adding to the conflict in front of the children will only make the stepparent part of the problem.
Accept that the stepchildren may never let you into their lives. It is sad, but it happens, especially if the stepchildren are older or grown and there is resentment from the former spouse. This is where not speaking ill of the other parent is especially important. If at all possible, at least show respect to the other parent even you do not personally like the individual.
In the case where the non-custodial parent gave up their rights to the biological child and a stepparent is made guardian or is able to adopt the stepchild, realize there may have been extenuating circumstances that caused the biological parent to give up their rights. In some cases, of course, the biological parent was never involved in the child’s life, but rather than talking about the unworthiness of that parent, keeping quiet is better. One day the child may want to know about that parent and they need the opportunity to form their own opinions and possibly develop a relationship with that parent. They will appreciate the stepfather or stepmother allowing them that freedom.
In the case where distance is an issue that causes the stepchild to not be able to visit their non-custodial parent, when the rare visitation time comes, encourage the stepchild to enjoy the visit and help them to stay in touch with their other parent. This is good advice for both the stepparent and the biological parent.
The non-custodial parent may have remarried and even have other children with that marriage. This is another case where if you can’t say anything nice, silence is golden. Encourage a relationship between the stepchild and their stepsiblings or half-siblings. If they want to have them over for a party or an overnight stay, encourage the visit. Realize those children are like having the neighbor’s children over for a visit; you have no disciplinary rights, nor does your partner or spouse. Call the parents if you need to.
Resentment of the stepparent is a natural in children of divorce or a breakup in the case of non-married parents, as they tend to harbor hopes that their biological parents will get back together and the stepparent is in the way of this happening, even if the stepparent was not in the picture when the separation occurred.
Children also tend to feel they are the reason their biological parents parted, even years later. Encourage them in believing that this was not their fault.
Don’t interfere with the relationship between the stepchild and their other parent. You may be with the custodial or non-custodial parent. If they want to speak with the other parent before they go to bed, even if it is not the other parent’s ‘turn’ to have the child, quietly encourage your partner to allow this, but not in front of the child; they are anxious enough about their parents being apart and may fear another drastic change is about to occur and believe it is their fault.
Be a friend to the stepchild, but not at the expense of undermining the natural parents’ authority.
Never discipline a stepchild unless clear on whether it is allowed, and what is and isn’t acceptable. An example would be that the stepparent can send the child to time out in the corner or their room, but not be allowed to put them on any restrictions (no television for a week) or spank them, even if that is used by the biological parent. That is their right; not the stepparent’s, unless express consent is given by both biological parents. This will keep conflict a bay between the biological parents.
Children need time to adjust to a stepfamily. There may be other children involved, known as a blended family, and the rules may be different for each set of children depending on the parents. Blended families mesh when respect from the children, regardless of whose they are, is required of all the children towards the stepparents, whether they like the person or not. A lack of respect toward the stepparent can lead the other biological children to either start using the same lack of respect toward their biological parent or argue with their stepsiblings, sometimes violently.
If it comes down to it…
If real behavior problems begin towards the stepparent or the stepsiblings or half-siblings, counseling may be necessary to resolve the issues. Try to work with both biological parents in this regard if that is what they decide to do. This can be as simple as driving the child to the session or participating, if necessary and allowed by the biological parents. Honor anything said in confidence during counseling sessions where you are invited into the session when the biological parents are not present unless it involves abuse.
If you are not invited by the child, you have no right to be involved in the sessions when they are individual sessions rather than family sessions which include stepparents.
Sources: www.law.berkeley.edu, www.helpguide.org, www.divorcesource.com