Stepparents take on the role of an additional parent when they marry someone with children from a previous relationship. As a stepparent, you take care of the child as your own and grow a special, lifelong bond. When the marriage ends in divorce, many stepparents worry about losing the relationship with their stepchild. While it is true that stepparents do not have the same legal rights as biological parents, the law recognizes the role and relationship as significant for both the stepparent and child.
The Child Comes First
When the courts are considering child custody or visitation rights in a divorce, the court has one concern – the welfare and well-being of the child. Any parent, biological or stepparent, will not be granted custody or visitation rights if they pose a threat to the child. This threat is not just about violence, abuse, or neglect. If a parent is unable to provide stability, safety, and a certain level of financial security for the child’s basic needs, the judge will rule against that parent having custody.
The judge will also consider the relationship between the parent and child to ensure that it is a healthy, beneficial relationship for the child. If a parent is only seeking custody to spite their ex-spouse and the relationship is not significant to the child, the judge may order sole custody for one parent and only minimal visitation rights for the other parent. The judge’s sole responsibility in a custody case is to the child and not the parents.
Are Stepparents Entitled Visitation Rights or Custody?
In the majority of states and cases, stepparents do not have rights in the same way that a biological parent does. A biological parent has a legal right to custody or visitation with their child. A stepparent does not have the right to custody or visitation. In order for a stepparent to receive joint custody or visitation, they will need to prove to the judge that they have a significant (and healthy) relationship with the child. The judge may not award custody but rather visitation. Custody tends to be split between the two biological parents, either through joint custody of both parents having the child equal amounts of time or joint custody where one parent has the child the majority of the time. The stepparent granted visitation will still be able to maintain the relationship with the child, but they may not have the child as often since the biological parents have custody. A stepparent with a healthy, loving relationship with their stepchild is often awarded visitation since ending this bond suddenly may be a traumatic experience for the child.
The easiest way to ensure parental rights to a stepchild is through adoption prior to the divorce, but this may not always be possible. If a stepparent legally adopted the child when the couple married, they are entitled to all the same custody rights as the biological parent.
Are Stepparents Required to Pay Child Support?
Biological parents always have a legal responsibility to provide for their child unless they have legally terminated their parental rights. In Indiana, stepparents are not legally required to pay child support for the care of the child in the same way as biological parents. If a stepparent is awarded joint custody, they will need to provide for the child and possibly pay child support. If the stepparent legally adopted the child, they are required to pay child support just like a biological parent. There are also cases where the biological parent is unable to financially provide for the child, and the stepparent requests to contribute to the care of the child.