By Julie Garrison
Special to DadsDivorce.com
The law works to protect marriage and nuclear or traditional families.
Stepfamilies, however, are considered incomplete institutions to be ignored and as stigmatized groups, less functional and more problematic than nuclear families.
The “progress” made in expanding the stepparent’s role is primarily geared toward increasing stepparent financial obligations without increases in parental rights or recognition of the important roles that many stepparents play in their stepchildren’s lives.
According to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, approximately 10-20% of America’s children reside in stepfamilies. Does this mean that the divorce rates are lower than represented? No, it does not.
It means that more and more divorced couples are cohabitating but not marrying. Why should a stepfather marry the children’s mother? Since he is invisible to the legal system, he and his beloved can have an invisible marriage, as well.
In her dissertation, “Worldwide Stepfamily Tribulations Under Current Laws and Social Policies,” Margorie Engel, Ph.D., states: “Family courts have been slow to accommodate people traditionally defined as outsiders. At present, the legal rights and obligations for the first-marriage family, however stormy and brief, are generally not extended to the stepfamily, however stable and lengthy. Clearly, the perils associated with the changing composition of families have not been adequately considered.”
In the United States, specific laws pertaining to remarriage and stepfamilies have been left to the states. This has created broad inconsistencies in legislation for this under-represented group.
A recent article on this subject states the height and breadth of what is lacking:
“While marriage clearly defines obligations and rights between the stepparent and the child’s natural parent, the stepchild is not considered part of this web of rights and obligations, even when the child resides in the same household. With few exceptions, stepparents have no obligation during the marriage to support their stepchildren, even while they have an obligation to support their spouse, the child’s parent. Nor do stepparents have any right of custody or control. If the marriage terminates through divorce or death, they most often have no rights of custody or visitation, no matter how longstanding their stepparent role. And stepparents do not have any obligation to pay child support following divorce, even if their stepchildren have depended on their income for many years. Conversely, stepchildren have no right of inheritance in the event of the stepparent’s death and do not receive the safety net of continuing benefits that they would with the death of a biological parent.”
The courts are way overdue for a shift in the way stepparents are regarded. This can be accomplished without diminishing the role of biological parents.
The family law courts in the U.S. need to stop treating stepparents as interlopers and recognize them, legally, for their investment in the lives of their stepchildren.
Since divorce and remarriage (or cohabitation) are on the rise, the sooner step-parenting is recognized as a viable, integral part of family structure and afforded more family rights, the better off the family will be.
Julie Garrison has been writing articles and short stories for the past 10 years and has appeared in several magazines and e-zines.