Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Rights and Obligations of Stepparents

A party becomes a stepparent by operation of law upon marrying someone who already has a child. Stepparents, their own children and their extended families are important parts of the natural parent’s life and as such are important to their stepchildren. It is not inappropriate for a natural parent to strive to build a positive relationship between the child and the stepparent and his or her family. However, the parent and stepparent must not allow that positive relationship to replace that of the child with the other natural parent and natural family. Thus, while it is proper to use visitation periods to foster the relationship between the child and the stepfamily, that should not be the primary focus of visitation.

While stepparents have no independent right in relation to their stepchildren, they do derive certain legal rights and obligations as the spouse of a parent. At common law, a stepparent did not have a duty to support a minor stepchild. The obligation imposing support by a stepparent flows from the New York Family Court Act, where it is specifically provides that the stepchild must either be liable to or actually be a public charge. Liability for support of a stepchild is collateral to the existence of a marriage. Once the marriage is dissolved, whether by divorce, death, or for any other reason, the stepparent relationship ceases as does the obligation to provide support. The mere separation of the stepparent and natural parent, or even the commencement of a divorce action between them, does not relieve the stepparent of the (limited) obligation of support.

Stepparents have standing to sue for custody or visitation but are required to prove extraordinary circumstances in order to be successful. As a practical matter, they act as parents while their stepchildren are with them. They can discipline the child and otherwise function as family members in social situations. In essence, the stepparent acts as the agent of the natural parent, from whom he or she derives his or her rights and authority with respect to the stepchild. Where the stepparent acts openly, the natural parent is considered responsible for his or her spouse’s acts and can be held accountable for them.