What Rights Do Stepparents Have After Divorce?

Close up of mother or older sister and a child hands at the sunset concept

Blended families are very common in Pennsylvania. Custodial and noncustodial parents often share childcare responsibilities with a spouse who is not biologically related to the child. But while stepparents often develop strong emotional bonds with their stepchildren, they don’t automatically have the same legal rights as biological parents. If you are a stepparent facing divorce, it’s important to understand your rights and obligations when it comes to your stepchild — and whether you can request custody or visitation.

Can a Stepparent Request Custody or Visitation in Pennsylvania?

Pursuant to Pennsylvania law, a person other than a child’s biological or legal parent who has a close relationship with the child may be entitled to request custody or visitation. Not only can this include grandparents, but also anyone who acts in the place of a parent — such as a stepparent.

In loco parentis (which is Latin for “in the place of the parent”) status occurs when someone takes on the responsibility of raising a child when the biological parent no longer cares for them. This can be due to a biological parent’s abuse, neglect, substance abuse, or incapacity. Critically, a stepparent must show the court by clear and convincing evidence that they have assumed (or are willing to assume) childcare responsibilities and have a sincere interest in the child’s welfare to be eligible to petition for custody.

What Criteria Do Pennsylvania Courts Look at When Determining Stepparent Custody?

If a stepparent cared for the child’s daily needs, cooked for them, brought them to medical appointments, paid for their education, and attended their school events, a court may find it is appropriate to award custody or visitation. Courts in Pennsylvania don’t have definitive criteria when it comes to granting stepparent custody or visitation. However, a judge will usually evaluate a number of factors, including:

  • The length of time a stepparent took on parenting responsibilities
  • The stepparent’s level of involvement
  • The child’s emotional dependence on the stepparent
  • The independence of the stepparent’s parenting role from that of the biological parent

Regardless of whether you are the biological parent or a stepparent, any custody arrangement entered into must be in the “best interests” of the child under Pennsylvania law. Significantly, the court must consider all relevant factors and give weight to those regarding the child’s welfare and safety.

Do Stepparents Have an Obligation to Pay Child Support After Divorce?

While stepparents may have rights to custody, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that they generally don’t have child support obligations. However, there can be certain circumstances under which a judge might order a stepparent to pay child support. For instance, if a stepparent aggressively seeks custody rights during a divorce and stands in loco parentis, the court may hold that they have a child support obligation. This was the case in A.S. v. I.S., where the court held that because a stepfather affirmatively pursued parental rights and acted in the place of the child’s biological father, he also had a duty to pay support.

While the court has been clear that it did not intend to create a new class of child support obligors in stepparents, it did acknowledge that there are limited situations in which a stepparent may assume child support obligations.

Stepparent Adoption Rights

Stepparents who have strong bonds with their stepchildren might choose to legally adopt them. This results in a biological parent losing their parental rights — the biological parent with whom the child does not live would no longer be legally responsible for the child’s welfare or providing for their financial needs. In some cases, the noncustodial parent must consent to the stepparent adoption and sign documents relinquishing their parental rights. But in situations involving abuse, neglect — or where the biological parent has been convicted of certain crimes — a court may terminate the biological parent’s rights involuntarily if it is in the child’s best interests.

Importantly, stepparent adoption establishes all the legal rights and responsibilities under Pennsylvania law that a biological parent has with their child. In the event of divorce or the biological parent’s passing, adoption can ensure a stepparent’s rights are protected by law.

Contact an Experienced Pennsylvania Stepparents’ Rights Attorney

Divorce can be a complex and emotional process — especially when it comes to blended families. If you are a stepparent facing divorce, it’s essential to understand what legal rights you may have regarding your spouse’s children with whom you may have shared a parent-child relationship. At Berman & Associates, we are committed to providing compassionate counsel and reliable representation for a variety of family law matters, including those involving stepparents. Contact us today to schedule a consultation at our Media office.