Stepparenting happens when one person marries the custodial parent of a minor child and thereafter resides with that child.
Liberal divorce has paradoxically dramatically increased the number of stepfamilies because more than three-quarters of people who divorce eventually remarry and many acquired “ready made” families in the process. Most divorced people marry again and have additional children, natural or stepchildren, but most states do not consider stepchildren to be “‘children of a subsequent marriage’” in support guidelines.
Stepparenting and stepchildren and stepfamilies face many challenges that traditional families do not. In day-to-day living, stepparents find themselves in situations where they lack the authority (”You’re not my father”) to enforce rules, regimes and protocols necessary for the domestic tranquility.
The relationship between a stepparent and his or her stepchildren is not the same as the relationship between a parent and his or her children in that under common law a stepparent has no financial duty to support a stepchild during a marriage to that child’s natural parent. However, 20 states statutorily require a stepparent to support stepchildren, but no state requires a stepparent to support a stepchild when they no longer live as a family.
Stepparents frequently bond to the their stepchildren, and thus visitation may become a decision a family court faces. Stepparents may be awarded visitation rights based on the “best interest” standard that dominates child custody and welfare actions. Twenty-three of the 50 states statutorily authorize stepparent visitation. In ten of these stepparents are explicitly named as having the right to request visitation and in 13 other states stepparents are considered “interested third parties.” Five others permit stepparents to petition for visitation.
The rights of the natural parent and the wishes of a stepparent may come in conflict. Most legislatures and courts have ruled there is a strong presumption in favor of the natural parent in dispute over a child with a nonparent, including a stepparent. In these cases, even the expressed wishes of a child to remain with a stepparent are subordinate to the right of parent to his or her child. Parents have a constitutionally protected right to determine a child’s “companionship, care, custody and management.” Very often, however, a stepparent is given visitation rights when the custodial parent dies. Custody of the child reverts to the child’s other natural parent, but the stepparent may appeal for visitation rights. A stepparent, however, may be granted custody when the facts demonstrate that the child would “would not benefit from being the custody of the natural parent.”