Do step-parents have child custody rights after divorce?

More often than not, a step-parent and step-child relationship is completely severed when spouses decide to get a divorce. However, there are cases where the families have lived blended for a number of years, and the step-parent has played a significant role in a child’s upbringing. In these situations, there can exist a close bond between the two, resulting in great emotional distress to a child when the parties split. So who gets to decide whether that relationship will continue?

If the child of legal age and considered an adult, then it is his or her decision to continue the relationship. If the child is still a minor, the decision is at the discretion of the court, and step-parent rights are very limited. According to a Supreme Court ruling, biological parents have a “fundamental right to make decisions concerning the care, custody, and control” of their children, including who has access to them.

Though laws vary by state, most abide by the rule that step-parents may only request and obtain custody of or visitation with a step-child if the biological parents are deceased, disabled, or otherwise unable or unwilling to care for the child. Unfortunately, this means that when two parties divorce and the opposing party chooses not to allow you to see their children, there are very few options to circumvent that decision as a step-parent. However, if the refusing party were to become deceased, a step-parent could then petition the court for custody or visitation.

Blended family relationships can be complex in the midst of a divorce. An experienced family law attorney can help navigate these issues and suggest a plan that satisfies the best interests of all involved.