Understanding Step-Parent Rights in Joint Custody Arrangements

Parents holding hands with child

In the US, over 50% of families are remarried or recoupled. As a result, between 10 and 20% of children in the US have at least one step-parent. For many step-parents, the legality surrounding step-parent rights in joint custody arrangements is challenging. Understanding your custodial rights as a step-parent can help you navigate your relationship with the child's biological parents and the child more easily.

What Are the General Legal Rights of Step-Parents?

In most cases, step-parents in joint custody arrangements have fewer rights than biological parents. While step-parents can receive legal rights pertaining to their step-child, doing so often requires navigating a legal arrangement with at least one (and often both) of the child's biological parents.

Below are some of the general rights step-parents do and don’t possess in a joint custody arrangement:

  1. Step-parents can't consent to medical treatment for their step-children. If an emergency occurs or a child needs medical attention, a step-parent can take them to the hospital. To consent to medical treatment in a joint custody arrangement where the biological parents have equal legal jurisdiction over the child, step-parents must have a consent form signed by the child's biological parents. In a noncustodial arrangement where the step-parent’s spouse has custody, only the spouse has to sign the consent form.
  2. Step-parents can access school records under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). As long as the child resides in the step-parent’s home some of the time, step-parents in joint custody arrangements can access school records or attend school functions with consent from their spouse. School officials may not always be aware of FERPA, so having a written consent form signed by your spouse on-hand is wise.
  3. Step-parents may be asked to participate in custodial and disciplinary arrangements. If a step-parent enters a marriage after custodial rights and disciplinary agreements are made, they may be requested by a judge to accept those arrangements. If your spouse's initial divorce requires specific methods of discipline for a child, you should adhere to those guidelines.

In summary, step-parents generally lack legal jurisdiction over a child unless they have written consent from one (and often both) biological parents.

Can Step-Parents Gain Legal Jurisdiction Over a Child?

Step-parents can sometimes gain equivalent legal jurisdiction to biological parents. One way step-parents can gain more legal authority over their child's life is through legal adoption. However, adoption typically isn't a feasible option in joint custody arrangements, as a noncustodial biological parent must give up their rights to a child in order for a step-parent to adopt successfully. If the biological parents have a poor relationship, trying to instigate an adoption may cause unnecessary strife and place undue stress on the child.

Instead of adoption, step-parents in joint custody arrangements may wish to pursue legal guardianship. Step-parents who act as legal guardians have more legal jurisdiction, but obtaining a legal guardianship doesn't require either biological parent to forfeit their rights to a child. However, obtaining a legal guardianship if both parents are competent and involved in the child's life can be difficult, and most legal guardianships only last until a child becomes an adult.

If a child's biological parents die or become unfit to care for their child, a step-parent can also act In Loco Parentis (Latin for "in place of a parent"). However, in a joint custody arrangement, parental rights will often default to one biological parent if the other dies or becomes unfit for custody. Frequently, both biological parents must either be deceased or unable to care for a child for a step-parent to act In Loco Parentis.

If a step-parent divorces their spouse but wishes to maintain a relationship with their step-child, they may attain visitation rights. Obtaining visitation rights has become significantly easier for step-parents in recent years. Experienced attorneys can help step-parents understand their rights and integrate into a joint custody arrangement smoothly.

Contact a Compassionate and Accomplished Attorney Today!

The family law team at Bez Law Firm, P.C. specializes in providing skilled, thorough legal representation to step-parents in joint custody arrangements. Our attorneys understand how sensitive child custody agreements are and are dedicated to helping you navigate them smoothly. With over two decades of experience and a proven history of success, we have all the tools and knowledge to help you achieve your goals.

Contact our law office at (916) 512-8944 to speak with a trusted member of our team about your rights as a step-parent in a joint custody arrangement.

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