Legal Status of Stepparents

20 08 2009

Stepfamily law in America is a big hot mess. If you are confused about your legal status as a stepparent, don’t feel bad because everyone is confused. When I started doing research last week about what the laws are in Minnesota, I wasn’t suprised to find that as I stepparent I am liable for the kids while they are in my care but I have no rights. 

To find out more about the law in America, I’m interviewing stepfamily law expert Margaret M. Mahoney, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Stepfamilies and the Law for my Becoming a Stepmom podcast radio show. If you have questions you want me to ask Ms. Mahoney, comment on this post and I’ll try to fit them into our interview!




7 responses

21 08 2009

What is the biggest thing that stepfamilies and our friends can do to promote changes in the legal system?
We are custodial, and my spouse signed a Delegation of Parental Rights for me. Would this work in a joint custody situation? If not, do parents with joint custody have any other options to grant their partners parental rights?
Finally, why does Firefox fail to recognize stepfamilies as a word?!

22 08 2009
Joy Cooper

My stepdaughter moved in with my husband and me in 1998 and lived with us for over 10 years. Needless to say, this was one of the most challenging and overwhelming periods of my life. I found it difficult to find the right kind of support and, consequently, had very little understanding of what was happening in my life. This was underscored by the fact that I have no children of my own and no experience child-rearing. Most of the time, I felt like a bad person and questioned my own sanity. It wasn’t until I participated in s stepmother’s group 2 years ago that I learned that stepfamilies don’t function like biological families for a variety of good reasons and that what I was experiencing was completely “normal.” There were women in the group who raised their husband’s children over a period of many years and developed deep relationships with them. When husband and wife divorced, these stepmoms were not allowed to maintain a relationship with their stepchildren. If they were bios moms this wouldn’t have happened. As a result, it was if all those years vanished into thin air. These women were grieving and they didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. In a related way, when my stepdaughter moved in with us, most people assumed that the transition would be seamless– after all, I was doing a good thing for another human being and why should there be any problems. There was very little recognition of what a huge change this was. Unlike a new biological mom, I didn’t get time off from work to ease the transition and there was no flurry of expectation and excitement from friends and family. Based on my experience and the experience of other stepmoms, I feel passionate that step-parents need to be recognized for the important role they play and they need to be protected legally. If there are people out there who are working on these issues, I would like to lend a hand and can be reached at Thank you.

25 08 2009

You bring up a really important point and one that we don’t like to talk about because it involves divorce. But you’re absolutely right. When a couple divorces, stepmom typically has no rights to visit the children she helped raise. There are some states (Minnesota is one of them) where you can petition the state for visitation rights. The American Bar Association has a chart of the states that allow this:

Thanks again for writing about this topic!!!


25 08 2009
Joy Cooper

You’re very welcome! Thanks for getting back to me and for that link. I’m going to check it out. This is part of a larger issue that has to do with recognition. Based on my experience, the world at large doesn’t seem to understand or embrace the important role that we play as step-parents. I know that the step-parent community is working on this to some extent. Please let me know if there’s any way that I can help and if there’s someone I can contact. I am a professional fundraiser and have alot of experience “selling” a cause.

Thanks again!


26 08 2009

Hi Joy,
Thank you for your hard work on this subject. It is a subject that really needs attention. I would not know what to do without my 6 year old step-daughter and I have only raised her in our home with residential custody for a little over a year and half, however I have been in her life for the last 3 to 4 years. I was so glad to find this site and see that someone is looking into our rights. I never know whither I can sign the parent/guardian spot or not and there isn’t much out there on this subject. I know if I do it and don’t clarify “Step-mother” her bio mom will throw a fit and take us to court. She doesn’t have her daughters best interest in mind, she just “want’s to win the fight” according to her. Do you know of anywhere I can find out if I can sign the Parent/Guardian line since she does live in my home and I am her primary care provider? I would like to know so that I can do so until we can get rid of bio mom for her continued drug usage. Also if there is anything I can do on the subject, please let me know.

Thank you again,

27 08 2009

Hi Melissa,

Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for doing work in this area; I was expressing my opinion and a desire to help. I agree that it is a subject in need of attention. When my stepdaughter was living with us full-time, I included myself in the parent/guardian spot and clarified that I was her step-parent if there was a place to do so on the form. In my case, my step-daugther’s mother was living far away (and for the most part hand’s-off) so it was logical for me to put my name there. I don’t want to give you incorrect advise–or advise that will get you into “trouble”– but I would include yourself as the full-time step-parent in whatever documents you fill out. This would seem to accurately represent who you are in her life, plus people will know who to contact if needed — which is critical. Perhaps one of the ladies out there knows more about this from a legal standpoint than I do.

Good luck!



27 08 2009

Hi Melissa:
Whether or not you can sign on the parent/guardian line depends on what you’re signing for and the policies of the institution you’re talking about. As I mentioned in the post about the library cards, it was not the library’s policy to exclude stepparents so I could have signed it (if it weren’t for that individual librarian’s interpretation of the policy). What you’ll need to do is ask each place what their policy is. For instance, if you’re talking about the school or a hospital than most likely, the answer is going to be no, you can’t sign the parent/guardian line.

Check out my podcast with stepfamily law attorney Margaret Mahoney. (Just click on the radio show link at the top of this page) and you can listen to it for free online. Ms. Mahoney had a lot of good information about the legal relationship stepparents have to their stepchildren (none, for the most part).

If you’re going for full custody and are planning to prove that your stepchild’s mom is unfit and to take away her parental rights in court, then you would have to adopt your stepchild in order to have any legal rights. To put it another way, even if your husband gets full custody of the child that wouldn’t mean you have any more rights than you do now (again, you have no rights in most states) unless you adopt her.

Does that make sense? This is complicated stuff! In most states you can do a search of the statues (a.k.a. laws) in your state about stepparents, but I’ll warn you, they are confusing. You can also search the Bar Association for your state to see the attorneys who list family law or stepfamily law as a specialty so you can chat about your particular situation with someone who is familiar with laws in your state.

Good luck!

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