CHILD CUSTODY AND STEPPARENT
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. 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.
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.
OVERCOMING THE PRESUMPTION
The 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.
BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILD
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. Attorneys should make the best possible case for why visitation and/or custody are indeed in the best interests of the child, based on the specific facts and circumstances of the case, including the 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.
A stepparent can become the legally recognized parent of the child and have the same rights to pursue custody and visitation as would a biological parent through an adoption. An adoption 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.
STEPPARENT RIGHTS – THE MARTIN LAW FIRM, P.C.
At The Martin Law Firm, P.C., our child custody attorneys help stepparent understand their rights and responsibilities for adopting a stepchild or pursuing custody and visitation rights. We understand that stepparent often play a critical role in helping raise the children and that often, the best interests of the child involve continuing contact with the stepparent. Call us today for a free case evaluation at 215-687-4053.