Family Lawyers and Psychologists
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Should stepparents be legally equal to parents?

A column in Time Magazine by Po Bronson says stepparents should have the legal rights of parents -- though it doesn't specify if that means all the same rights, or a partial or subordinate set of rights. The column is inspired by a recent Washington State supreme court opinion legally recognizing as "de facto parent" a lesbian who was the lifelong primary caretaker of her partner's child, who they had decided to have as a couple.

Some problems with the stepparent rights idea:

- You give someone rights, often that means taking away someone else's. The stepparent's rights would dilute those of the natural parents (in the model Bronson proposes, where the stepparent becomes a third or fourth parent).

- We already have an objective, conscious, consent-based mechanism people can use to make a stepparent into a full-fledged legal parent -- stepparent adoption. It is usually used only when one natural parent consents and/or has willingly gone for years without having any contact with the child. As Bronson points out, this is available, but it always subtracts a parent before adding one. He wants children to have three. Or more?

- Where can we draw the line, in a political environment that is so hostile to any line-drawing? Would the stepparent have to be married to a parent? Or to another stepparent formerly married to the natural parent? Does the non-custodial parent's spouse also qualify? If you can't draw a line at marriage, how will everyone involved know whether the relationship is serious enough that the stepparent has made like the Velveteen Rabbit and become real?

Comments

M.Teruakim

First and foremost we have to accept the term stepparent and stepchild has very negative connotations and archetypically conjures up bad emotions.In Sweden ladies are petitioning for use of term BONUSCHILDREN.Symbolic but a good start.

eduardo

i have a concern in regards to a fathers rights..
i have given a child my last name .. this because i love him.. when he was born the mother was fine with this but now that we are going to get dovorce she is telling me that she would not let me see him and that she will take the last name away from the baby . can she do that.. i am in NJ

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

On behalf of Po and myself, I'd like to respond to your comments.

First, our point is not simply that we advocate the law giving a child "three parents," but more that the law needs to recognize the present realities of the American household. A full one-third of children will spend some time in a step household. We doubt that these families have any idea that the stepparents have absolutely no legal standing in relationship to the children. And that the current way of addressing that -- by individual statute -- is creating a nonsensical hodgepodge of inconsistent laws that serves no one.

Sociologists bemoan the fact that fathers largely check out of a child's life after divorce. Our current legal structure just encourages that behavior: traditional parental rights laws usually do, as you mentioned, require that one biological parent is found to be absent, deficient, or otherwise withdrawing from the parental role, therefore resulting in the dilution (at a minimum). The adoption avenue is the only current option, in most states, and that does not just dilute, but completely eradicate one of the biological parent's rights, and usually, that has to be based on that parent's failings.

This may have worked when the courts awarded sole custody of children, but it makes less sense in joint custody scenarios, where other caregivers will almost surely become involved at some point in a child's life.

For example, in a recent appeal of a Social Security Administration decision, the SSA determined that a stepparent must contribute 50% of a stepchild's income in order for that child to receive death benefits -- even if the stepparent was a full-time stay at home mother for the child (and would apply even if the woman had cared for the child since infancy).

Moreover, the dilution argument does not apply in this case. The Washington Supreme Court specifically states in its opinion that determination of one parent's deficiency required is not required in determination of a "de facto" parent under its new standard.

What is required, among other things, is that a biological parent consented to the arrangement from the very first, that the child lived with the person long enough to establish a bond, and that bond was established through support and care.

Accordingly, this test is not limited to same-sex couples (the original parents at issue) or stepparents, but also creates the possibility that others, such as grandparents, could also be considered "de facto parents."

The Court's standard is not simply a "stepparent = parent" proposal but a factual determination.

And we think that looking at the facts of a child's life is the right step in the direction to recognizing the reality of American family life.

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