Thankfully, courts in recent years are beginning to recognize that a parent is someone who raises and cares for a child, regardless of biological ties. They are starting to recognize that a child’s bond with a stepparent can be significant – every bit as important as their ties to a biological parent. That said, stepparents still face an uphill battle and many challenges when it comes to child custody or visitation rights.

As of writing this, 23 states had enacted specific laws protecting step-parent visitation rights, and 10 more explicitly allow stepparents to seek visitation. Another thirteen states allow any “interested third party” to seek child visitation rights, and stepparents fall under this designation. Sadly, four states – Florida, Iowa, Alabama, and South Dakota – have not kept pace with the needs of children and do not afford stepparents any visitation rights.

Stepparents seeking child custody or visitation

Visitation rights for stepparents are becoming a lot more common, whereas sole custody or split-custody arrangements are much rarer. However, joint-custody might be awarded in situations where a stepparent has been a primary caretaker for the child for a long time, and if there aren’t other custody arrangements already in place, such as a custody arrangement between the child’s biological parents. Sole custody is only awarded in cases where a biological parent is unfit or unwilling to care for the child and there is no one else to care for him or her.

Petitioning for visitation rights with a stepchild

In order to petition for stepchild visitation or custody rights, stepparents must first prove standing, which basically means that their plea has merit and is worthy of being heard. Standing is determined by the following factors:

  • How much a stepparent was involved in a child’s life.
  • The length of the relationship with the stepchild and the amount of time they acted in the capacity of a parent.
  • The quality of the relationship between stepparent and stepchild, and the strength of emotional bonds.
  • The amount of financial support and other assistance provided by the stepparent.
  • The hardships a child might endure if the stepparent were to be denied visitation.

Stepparents should be prepared with this information and, if possible, be able to provide the court with specific examples and evidence pertaining to each one.

How courts determine child custody & visitation rights for stepparents

Child custody and visitation is awarded to stepparents based on the “best interests of the child” doctrine. This means they base their decision on how much a child’s relationship with a step-parent improves that child’s life and enhances his or her welfare. This will determine what (if any) visitation or custody rights are awarded.

Though it isn’t explicitly stated, courts will also tend to balance this “best interests” approach with the degree of difficulty or hardship it might place upon the family to meet these visitation demands. Therefore stepparents have better odds of success when the situation is less-complicated and unburdened by other pre-existing custody arrangements between biological parents.