Do Stepparents Have Any Legal Rights or Responsibilities?
While the divorce rate has been on the decline in recent years, most people do not have to look too far to find someone whose marriage did not work out. A considerable number of these divorced individuals have young children, which can motivate some parents to seek remarriage in order to provide additional stability to a child. Despite the depictions of stepparents in television and film as villains out to displace the children from a spouse’s previous relationship, many stepparents enjoy happy and healthy relationships with their stepchildren. In some cases, stepparents, for all practical purposes, step into the shoes of a legal or natural parent in terms of emotional attachment, instruction and financial support. Even in situations where the bond between stepparent and stepchild is not as close, the question of a stepparent’s rights and obligations over a stepchild may arise, especially if there is a dispute with the other parent or the second marriage does not last. Specifically, most would be interested in knowing what, if any, rights and responsibilities stepparents would have in the areas of child custody and child support, and an exploration of these issues will follow below.
Florida law generally limits a child to two legal parents. Individuals recognized as parents under the law have the right to make decisions related to a child’s upbringing and to have physical custody. When divorce occurs, these rights are typically shared between the parents, but a parent’s remarriage does not transfer any legal rights over a child to a stepparent. This means if the spouse and stepparent divorce, the stepparent has no right to ask for visitation or any other form of contact with the child. Of course, the former spouse could permit continued contact, but the law does not support it. If the stepparent wants to gain such rights, his/her only option is to adopt the child, which requires the consent of the spouse and the termination of the other parent’s rights. Parental rights are terminated with consent or if a court finds a parent to be unfit. Stepparent adoptions are usually faster and less involved than traditional adoption cases, but the services of a family law attorney should be used to avoid unnecessary hassle or the denial of the adoption petition.
Similar to child custody, stepparents have no legal obligation to financially support a stepchild since they are not a legal parent. Further, courts generally do not consider a stepparent’s income when calculating child support obligations for a spouse. However, this does not mean the stepparent’s income has no impact on the child support amount. A spouse’s cost of living can go down (as a result of sharing expenses) and his/her net income go up (from tax benefits) due to the financial contributions of the stepparent. A remarriage can also give the other parent grounds to petition for a modification of the child support order. Further, marital assets, including a stepparent’s share, can be used to pay overdue child support if ordered by a court. However, if a stepparent adopts the child, he/she assumes the financial obligation that all legal parents have to provide support until a child becomes an adult, and will be subject to a child support order if a divorce occurs.
Talk to a Family Law Attorney
Figuring out the role of a stepparent may not be easy, as any issue related to children is usually somewhat complicated. If you have concerns about securing or enforcing your rights as a parent, talk to a family law attorney to learn what is permitted by law. Joyce A. Julian, P.A. handles any issue related to family law, and is available to advise on the possible legal outcome of your situation. If you live in the Fort Lauderdale area, call the office for a free consultation.