Legal Boundaries for Stepparents

By Robin Elizabeth Margolis

In 2004, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 17.2 percent of American women and and 16.6 percent of American men are currently in a second marriage. Many of these spouses bring children from previous marriages and relationships into stepfamilies. As a stepparent, you act as a mother or father to your stepchildren in many different circumstances, but there are some legal boundaries that prevent you from having the same rights to your stepchildren that their biological parents have. You can acquire some of these rights through various legal procedures.

Colonial Law

Stepfamilies existed in large numbers in colonial America, due to the short lifespans that prevailed in the days before modern medicine. Stepfathers accused of abuse were deprived of custody more often than biological fathers accused of the same crime. Stepmothers could lose custody of a stepchild to the child's biological relatives after the child's biological father died. These negative attitudes toward stepparents meant that stepparents were not given as many legal rights to their stepchildren as biological parents in U.S. state family laws.

Inheritance Rights

You may be unaware that no matter how emotionally close you and your stepchildren become, your stepchildren will not inherit any of your property when you die unless you make a will specifically leaving a bequest to your stepchildren. The law does not view your stepchildren as having the same inheritance rights as your biological children. If you wish to leave property to your stepchildren, you should insert specific provisions to that effect in your will. You can also consult an attorney about setting up trusts, annuities and other methods of creating an income for your stepchildren.

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Child Custody

As a stepparent, you are not automatically entitled to custody of your stepchildren if the biological parent you are married to becomes disabled or dies, even if your spouse has custody of your stepchildren and they have spent most of their time with you and your spouse. Your stepchildren's other biological parent has a stronger chance of gaining custody. If you want custody of your stepchildren in the event of your spouse's disability or death, you may wish to legally adopt them. Legal procedures for adoption of stepchildren are described in the Children Welfare Information Gateway's brochure "Stepparent Adoption."

Child Support

Child support is an area in which legal boundaries for stepparents are very fuzzy. The original family law principle makes only biological parents responsible for supporting children. These days, some state laws require you to help support your stepchildren for as long as you are married to one of their biological parents. Your support does not excuse either biological parent from providing financial support for the children. If you are uncertain about your obligations under your state's laws, or if you are concerned that you are providing support while a biological parent is not providing a fair share, you may wish to consult a lawyer who specializes in family law to determine your responsibilities.

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