Love & Money: Are You Legally Responsible for Your Stepchildren?

Love & Money: Are You Legally Responsible for Your Stepchildren?

If you’ve gotten married recently and your new love has kids, congratulations–you’re a stepparent! But what are your legal rights and responsibilities?

In a nutshell, you have none. While you might perform all the day-to-day tasks of a biological parent, stepparents have no legal rights or responsibilities when it comes to their stepchildren. Marie Washington, an attorney at the law offices of Mark B. Williams in Warrenton, Virginia, breaks down what stepparents can and cannot do legally. (Laws vary according to your state, so seek the counsel of an attorney near you for specific advice.)

  • Emergency Care. You’re not allowed to sign a consent form for treatment (in the case of a minor) if your stepchild needs to be admitted to the hospital.
  • School activities. You cannot sign a permission form for school. “Stepparents can’t even go to their stepchild’s school and look at the child’s school records,” says Washington.
  • Divorce. If a divorce occurs, the stepparent has no legal right to custody of the child. “The biological parents are always the primary,” says Washington.
  • Death. If the biological parent dies, you might also be out of luck. The other living biological parent has more of a legal right to custody of the child. Unless you can prove that a close bond was formed between you and your stepchild, you most likely won’t gain custody.

 However, there are two circumstances where a stepparent might be able to obtain legal rights regarding his or her stepchild.

  • Adoption. “Stepparents don’t have any legal rights unless they adopt or petition the court for custody along with their current spouse and they’re awarded custody,” says Washington.
  • Incarceration of the biological parent. “Let’s say the stepparent is the wife, and the husband and wife want to file for sole custody. If the biological mom is incarcerated, the judge may grant that the husband and current wife can have sole custody,” says Washington.

Sheiresa Ngo is the multimedia content producer for consumer affairs at Black Enterprise.

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