Stepparents exist in a strange kind of legal limbo. They might interact with a stepchild more than their biological parent, and they owe their stepchildren the same “duty of care” to look after their best interests, which means doing everything a parent normally does and maybe even making decisions in an emergency when the biological parent isn’t around. So their capacity is much like that of a child care provider: all of the responsibility without any of the rights.
The legal rights of stepparents
The legal rights for stepparents are pretty straightforward: unless you’ve formally adopted a stepchild, you have none. As Barry Frieman, Ed.D., states, “Stepparents have no legal rights with their mates children. Biological parents will have to give day care centers and schools written permission to allow stepparents to participate in their child’s lives.” (Frieman, 2005, p. 160)
The ability of stepparents to make decisions regarding a stepchild
In most situations, stepparents can function in the duty of a parent with few if any problems. Schools, doctors, and child care centers typically recognize the new family structure and will treat the new stepparent accordingly. They’re not going to withhold information just to be difficult or place undue burdens on the situation. But if for any reason a conflict arises (say, your partner’s ex decides to raise a fuss, or you and your partner disagree on something), a stepparent’s opinions cannot influence the situation or overrule those of the biological parent.
Does it matter what a stepchild wants?
No. Even if a stepchild happens to side with their stepparent, the biological parent is the only one afforded legal rights, and so their wishes prevail.
Financial responsibilities of stepparents
Aside form providing as you normally would for your stepfamily, typically a stepparent has no ongoing legal obligation to support their stepchildren. However, 20 states have a statute imposing basic financial duties, and in some cases, a stepparent may take on the responsibility of acting In Loco Parentis to a child, which makes them obligated to support a child if for any reason their biological parent is unable to do so.
Stepparents should also understand that stepchildren do not inherit any rights from their stepparent. They are not considered your legal inheritants. So unless you explicitly state so in your will, a stepchild has no legal right to a stepparent’s inheritance. This is yet another reason to create a will whenever you remarry. When a parent in a stepfamily situation dies without a will, it can create a mess all around. In drafting a will, make sure your attorney understands your situation and who is or isn’t biologically related. Many attorneys use generic clauses or allocate an asset be divided by the testator’s “children,” but this won’t be interpreted to include the stepkids unless it specifically says so.
Rights & Responsibilities regarding medical care
One common issue that arises is that stepparents end up taking a child to doctor’s appointments or other everyday medical checkups and encounter problems from a health care provider who doesn’t consider them a legal guardian. The amount of difficulty you’ll encounter can vary depending on the particular provider and the statutes of the state you’re in. If you encounter this problem, you might be able to have the biological parent sign a statement authorizing the stepparent to consent to medical care that can be kept with the child’s medical records.
Expanding stepparent rights & privileges through a power of attorney
Some states (Arizona, for example) allow natural parents or legal guardians to delegate rights and privileges through a signed and notarized power of attorney form. This can give step-parents expanded rights over a stepchild. These forms are typically only good for a certain time frame (they may expire after 6 months, though some states might allow you to renew them) and are also generally limited in scope (prescribing certain rights over certain activities, specific medical visits, etc.).
Such documents can’t supersede any other pre-existing court orders, so it’s not like you can simply draft a power of attorney that will interfere with custody arrangements or go against the wishes of the other biological parent. But it might give a stepparent greater leeway when it comes to everyday things. If this is something you think might be useful, look into local state laws by searching the terms “step-parent rights power of attorney (your state)” and go from there.
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