Legal Guardianship of a Stepchild

By Bryan Driscoll, J.D.

Legal Guardianship of a Stepchild

By Bryan Driscoll, J.D.

Courts always prefer a biological relative when determining guardianship of a child. Stepparents often pursue legal guardianship of stepchildren because of the authority it provides them. In emergency situations, you may not have the authority necessary to make a decision on behalf of your stepchild. As far as the law is concerned, you have no authority over them. But you can change that by assuming legal guardianship.

Man holding young girl on his lap reading a book together

You already provide emotional and possibly financial support for your stepchild. It only makes sense that you maintain legal authority to make decisions on their behalf as well. But until you take the step of receiving a court-ordered guardianship of your stepchild, you lack that legal authority.

Guardianship Responsibilities and Limitations

A court will not usually grant guardianship to someone unless one or both biological parents are unable or unwilling to care for their child. States and courts almost always prefer biological parents over anyone else. As a guardian of your stepchild, you would have the same responsibilities as the biological parents. This includes responsibility for your stepchild's health, medical decisions, and school decisions. A guardianship will remain in effect until the child reaches 18 years of age.

Sometimes you might have to challenge a biological parent's fitness. If a biological parent wants to remain in the child's life, they have a legal right to do so. But if you feel that the individual is unfit as a parent, you can challenge them in court. By following the steps below, you can petition for guardianship on your own. However, you can also speak with a family law professional too.

1. Get a guardianship form from the clerk's office.

Go to the clerk's office of your local courthouse and ask for the form to file for a guardianship of a minor, usually called a Petition for Guardianship.

2. Complete the form and attach other documentation.

When you complete the form, make sure you are entering accurate and truthful information. By signing the form, you're swearing under oath that everything on that document is the truth. The court will also require you to attach any other documentation the court would find relevant. This could include documentation showing the biological parent is unfit.

3. File the petition and send a copy to the biological parent.

Once you've completed the form, you need to file it with the same clerk where you picked up the form. You'll also be required to pay a filing fee. Then you send a copy of the form to the biological parent. You're asking the court to determine the fitness of your stepchild's biological parent.

4. Attend the hearing.

The clerk will assign a judge to your case and will schedule a hearing where you, your spouse, the biological parent, and possibly your stepchild attend. The judge may even request a private meeting with the child. If the judge agrees with your petition and you have provided sufficient evidence that you should be the guardian, the judge will issue a guardianship order.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.