Stepparents: The Legally Invisible Parents

stepfamily divorceBy Julie Garrison

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With one out of every two marriages ending in divorce, statistics indicate both divorced partners will probably remarry at least once.

Even though a stepparent may participate in all aspects of raising his stepchild, the “unofficial” parenting by a stepparent is rarely factored into legal decisions made on behalf of the child.

Additionally, no uniform treatment of the stepparent-stepchild relationship exists in the United States.


A Hypothetical

Let’s say that a divorced couple goes back to court for a modification of child support. Before they actually get to stand before the judge, they are required to bring the matter before a mediator who either settles the dispute or makes recommendations to the judge who will hear the case.

So as the man and ex-wife are duking it out before the mediator, the stepparents are required to remain out in the lobby. Even though the child’s stepparents help to provide a certain amount of financial support and stable living environment in their respective households, they are legally invisible.

The biological parents have all the decision-making power, and the child’s stepparents have none.


Common Sense

One would think that with half of first marriages and 60% of remarriages ending in divorce, the stepparent would be considered an important force in a child’s life and afforded significant legal rights like signing report cards, authorizing medical care, and participating in parent-teacher conferences.


Uncharted Territory

Not only is there very little on the books giving stepparents legal rights, there is a paucity of data on stepparent families, in general.

In fact, there is no solid census data on family composition. This would stand to reason since nobody can even agree on the definition of a family let alone its make-up.

In the last census, only children classified as “stepchildren of the householder” were counted. However, it omitted children of the householder’s spouse living in the home. It did not account for the many variations of the American blended family.


More Emotional Problems

Stepchildren on average exhibit more signs of depression, are more at risk for emotional problems, more often exhibit the problem behaviors of drug and alcohol use, become sexually active at an earlier age, and have more children out of wedlock.

This tendency for downward spiraling is more indicative of a child’s adjustment to divorce, remarriage and the chaos of realigning as a cohesive family system, rather than his adjustment to a stepparent alone.

Shouldn’t a stepparent have some input regarding his stepchildren’s educational setting and their health care decisions? Why can’t a stepparent extend medical coverage and all other employee benefits during marriage or after death, and why can’t stepchildren be statutory heirs?

No uniform treatment of the stepparent-stepchild relationship exists in the United States.

It should be noted by the legal and political community that social scientists – for years – have been focusing their time and energy on the relational challenges and difficulties associated with adjusting to post-divorce and remarried family life.

Hindering study of the stepfamily are the personal relationships that vary in form, structure, and complexity between stepparents and their stepchildren.


Julie Garrison has been writing articles and short stories for the past 10 years and has appeared in several magazines and e-zines.

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4 comments on “Stepparents: The Legally Invisible Parents

    Hello there, Im looking for some step parents advice. I just got married almost a year a go…. i guess what i’m trying to say is I could use any type of help or anything you can help me with…. even if you could point me in the right way…. it would mean alot… thanks so much…

    my step daughter isnt treated right by her mother
    Ok, I have been married to my husband for seven years. My step daughter was three when we married. Her mother was a drunk and does drugs, as well as her new husband. Unfortunately my husband was not smart about the custody situation and asked for visitation only. He pays child support and my step daughter loves her half sisters…the children my husband and I have together. However, this mother loves to play the power trip game with us, which is only hurting the child. I get phone calls from her crying because she askes to see us. Theres alot more to this situation, but to get to the point, do I have the right to take the mother to court and request weekends, holidays and school breaks? We live 150 miles away and cannot just jump in the car and get her on the mothers convenience. What do I do for this little girl, who I look at as my own?.Do I not have any right to take the mother to cour or should I just call cps on her?

    Account Excutive
    I can relate to this problem. :'( I love my step-son like I do my son. I want the best for him. I have been told I have no right to see him unless my husband is going to home. I provide as much love, support and funds as my husband. I play with him, read to him, cook for him, give him bathes etc.. He loves me and asked for me even when at home with his real mom. I dont have any rights. What can I do to help change this?

    If a man and his ex-wife are duking it out at the mediation center what possible good would it do to add one or more biased parties to the mix?

    Considering the other pressing issues at hand, this one isn’t worthy of much effort.

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