Step-Parents: Parental Responsibility and Access

Stepparents are a prominent and increasingly common part of many families’ structure.

Families do not have a single formation. They grow and change, and we welcome new family members to the fold through birth, marriage, and friendship. Stepparents are a prominent and increasingly common part of many families’ structure. They can play a formative role in a child’s upbringing, giving them yet another adult to rely on and look to for guidance.

Yet, while the emotional connections between stepparents and their children can be strong, the legal connections between them may be less concrete. This can place stepparents in an uncomfortable limbo if their marriage to a custodial parent ends or if their spouse passes away unexpectedly.

For the former, in an ideal situation, custodial parents will recognise the bonds that have formed between children and stepparents and work to maintain those relationships even without any legal obligations.

For the latter, the death of a spouse is never easily contemplated, but many stepparents must contend with this reality unexpectedly. If stepparents wish to continue their relationship with their children, doing so if the surviving biological parent protests to it can be difficult and may require legal intervention.

Obtaining legal rights and responsibilities

There are different routes for obtaining legal rights and responsibilities for stepchildren. Below is an outline for how stepparent adoption and parental responsibility work generally in Australia, but family law practitioners should always be consulted before moving forward as legislation can vary by state.

Parenting Orders

Parenting orders are one way stepparents can obtain parental responsibility for their stepchildren and have the same authority and responsibilities as a biological parent. When determining whether a stepparent should have full parental responsibility, the courts will always consider first whether such an arrangement would be in the best interests of the children. Read this post for more information about the parenting arrangement. (LINK TO DIFFERENT ASPECTS OF PARENTING ARRANGEMENT POSTS ONCE PUBLISHED)

Parenting orders can also provide structure for different arrangements that do not require a stepparent to have full parental responsibility. Families may want the ability of a stepparent to pick up a child from their other biological parent, attend school functions and meetings, or be informed of their education and health as a biological parent would. If there are only certain aspects of parental responsibility a family is concerned with a stepparent obtaining, they can either request that arrangement when applying for parenting orders or, if all parties are in agreement, apply for consent orders to make their agreement legally binding. 

Stepparent Adoption

Adoption of a stepchild forms permanent legal ties between stepparents and children, with all the rights and responsibilities of a biological parent. However, solidifying ties in this manner is complicated and not appropriate for every family.

The adoption of a child by a stepparent severs the legal ties between children and their noncustodial parent. If the noncustodial parent is an able and willing parent to their children, pursuing stepparent adoption is not only unnecessary but could also be damaging to familial relationships.

If a biological parent opposes a stepparent adoption, children will potentially be exposed to yet another legal battle in their young lives. Conflict between parents, whether it’s between biological or bonus parents, has lasting effects on a child’s confidence and sense of stability. Parents should examine deeply their reasoning for pursuing stepparent adoption and think critically about whether or not doing so will be in the best interests of their children.

If the noncustodial parent is either absent from, unable, or unwilling to participate in their child’s upbringing, the custodial parent and stepparent may wish to pursue stepparent adoption. Adoption creates a legally protected relationship between stepparents and their children. It can provide stability and security in day-to-day matters, but also prove vital in situations where a biological parent falls ill or passes away unexpectedly.

Access after a divorce

Stepparents who have been a part of a child’s life for many years can still find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having no legal ties with them after a divorce or unexpected death. Yet the relationships between stepparents and stepchildren can be foundational, the loss of which can leave children bereft of an important source of support and love.

Whether parted by divorce or the loss of a loved one, in an ideal world, biological parents would recognise the importance of the relationship between a stepparent and their children. But divorce proceedings can be contentious, and individuals involved may not be as open-minded and flexible as they are at other times. In the case of the unexpected death of a spouse, if there was a history of conflict between biological parents, the other parent may be more reluctant to further facilitate the relationship between their children and a stepparent.

Some stepparents may wish to pursue legal intervention for maintaining their relationship with their stepchildren. Yet, stepparent custody and access rights may not be so easily obtained. It can be an uphill battle for stepparents to gain any custody rights, especially when both parents are able and involved in their children’s lives. However, access to children may be easier to pursue after a divorce or separation. When determining whether to grant a stepparent access to their stepchildren, the courts will always base their decision on whether or not doing so would be in the best interests of the children.

In certain situations, step-parents may also be responsible for contributing financially to their step-children's upbringing after a divorce or separation. Stepparents ordered to pay child support for stepchildren are not automatically granted custody or access.

Whether pursuing custody or access, it is vital that stepparents consult a licensed legal professional in their area who is familiar with their state’s custody laws.

Stepparents often play a central role in the lives of their stepchildren. That leaves many stepparents unsure of how to proceed when divorce or the death of a loved one puts those relationships on the line. Stepparents and biological parents should try to work together to come up with a solution that is in the best interests of children. If a stepparent is a source of stability, breaking the ties they have with their stepchildren is rarely beneficial. In cases where conflict is prevalent, stepparents may wish to consult a family law professional for advice on how to proceed. While it may be inappropriate to pursue custody, stepparents may wish to request access so they can maintain meaningful relationships with their stepchildren.