While the law has traditionally placed the rights of a biological parent over those of a stepparent, the reality is that, more and more, it is common for a stepparent to have spent significantly more time raising a child than a biological parent who has been out of the picture for most or all of the child’s life. In Pennsylvania, a stepparent does have rights to pursue both custody and visitation of a child during a divorce proceeding. That said, the route to obtaining custody is considerably more challenging for a stepparent who has not legally adopted a child, but working with an experienced Pennsylvania family law attorney can help you make the compelling arguments for why obtaining custody and/or visitation is in the best interests of the child in your situation.
At The Martin Law Firm, P.C., our family law attorneys work with stepparents across Southeastern Pennsylvania in helping them pursue visitation with and custody of the children for which they have played such a critical role in helping raise.
Stepparents Rights to Visitation and Custody in Pennsylvania
When a stepparent marries the biological parent of a child, the law still considers the other biological parent (whether that person was married to the first biological parent or not) to be legally obligated to financially support the child, even if that parent may have never even met the child. This typically comes in the form of child support payments, which should continue even after the custodial parent marries the stepparent. This also means that the stepparent does not have an obligation to financially support the child either during the marriage or after a divorce.
Along with this lack of a financial obligation to support a child comes a more limited right to pursue custody and/or visitation for a stepchild, and the presumption in the law is that the biological parents will be the ones who retain custody amongst themselves.
That presumption in favor of biological parents can be overcome, however, when it can be shown that the stepparent was acting in loco parentis, or acting “in the place of a parent.” Thus, if a stepparent has taken a significant role in the child’s life over a significant duration of a time – for example, helping to raise the child, educating the child, providing for financial and medical needs, forming an emotional bond, and so on – then the stepparent can make a case to the court presiding over the divorce that custody or ongoing visitation is appropriate.
While a stepparent may have an emotional bond to the child, the court will not focus on the stepparent’s needs in making a custody or visitation determination but rather on what arrangement will serve the best interests of the child. As your legal counsel, we will make the best possible case for why visitation and/or custody is indeed in the best interests of the child, based on your family history and the law.
Where the biological parent has a history of instability, drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or some other factor that negatively affects the best interests of the child, there may be a more clear case for why a stepparent should be granted custodial rights. Note that awarding a stepparent sole or shared custody may or may not lead to a financial obligation to support the child, based on the court’s particular perspective on the circumstances.
Pursuing a Stepparent Adoption
Through a stepparent adoption, a stepparent becomes the legally recognized parent of the child, and thus has the same rights to pursue custody and visitation as would a biological parent. This also creates a financial obligation to support the child (which can include child support payments).
Pursuing a stepparent adoption comes with challenges, however, including terminating another person’s parental rights, which may require showing parental unfitness when those rights are not voluntarily waived. Contact our office for more information on stepparent adoptions.
Get Help With Your PA Family Law Matter Today
At The Martin Law Firm, P.C., our family law team works with men and women across Southeastern Pennsylvania in family law matters – including divorce, child custody, and visitation – and we are committed to serving your needs in a compassionate and efficient manner. Call us today for a no-hassle consultation regarding any questions you have about visitation in Pennsylvania.