As the landscape of the American family changes, it should come as no surprise that remarriage following a divorce is more common than ever. With the social taboos against divorce disappearing, divorced spouses will naturally move on after a divorce and sometimes remarry. When children are involved, a new step-parent will need to work hard to develop a new and meaningful relationship with the child, often treading carefully to avoid disrupting the relationship that already exists between the child and the biological parent. After building such a bond and sometimes living with and caring for a step-child for many years, step-parents often have concerns about their rights in the event of divorce from the biological parent of the child.
Regardless of the length of the marriage to the biological parent, the reality is that a step-parent has almost no rights to a step-child. A step-parent has no ability to ask for visitation or custody of the step-child during a divorce over the rights of the biological parents. Even if the biological parent against whom the step-parent is seeking a divorce is an unfit parent, the law states that in such a situation, the custody of the child should revert to the other biological parent, not to the step-parent. There are some very limited exceptions, and it is not totally impossible for a step-parent to sometimes gain custody of a step-child. If a step-parent believes that both parents are unfit and can demonstrate that abuse has occurred, a step-parent may be able to successfully request custody if he or she can also show that ending a relationship between the child and the step-parent would be detrimental to the child. A step-parent should be aware, however, that a court will almost always have a preference for a blood relative to be the custodian of a child, such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle.
The only sure way for a step-parent to be guaranteed to be able to request custody or visitation is to adopt the child. To complete a step-parent adoption, the spouse of the step-parent must agree. The parental rights of the other biological parent must also be terminated, which can be very difficult if he or she will not voluntarily relinquish rights. If the adoption is completed, the law views the step-parent as the biological and legal parent of the step-child with the same rights and responsibilities of a biological parent.