During the often confusing period of separation, divorce and remarriage, many questions arise that normally would seem out of the domain of the average citizen. One of these pertains to the rights of the stepfather in assuming daily proximity to children who are biologically unrelated to him.
Historically, stepfathers have no legal rights to the children with whom they live if they are not their biological children. According to Mary Ann Mason in her work on this subject ("Stepparents: De Facto Parents, Legal Strangers." Journal of Family Issues 23, No. 4.) stepfathers have been on shaky legal ground since colonial times. During colonial times in the United States, stepfathers were likely to replace biological fathers as a result of a widow's remarriage. At that time, a stepfather under common law had no legal obligations to his stepchildren, and no rights as well. Should a stepfather pass away, nothing would legally belong to the stepchildren.
As time progressed, divorce replaced widowhood as a reason for remarriage. According to Mason, "it was estimated that one-fourth of the children born in the United States in the early 1980s will live with a stepparent before they reach adulthood."
What is the cultural and psychological significance of the lack of legal rights of stepfathers in our country? Answers are as unique as individual families themselves. There are far-reaching implications that can, unfortunately, lead to generalisation and stereotypes that do no one good in the long run. Stepfathers have no rights regarding their stepchildren. Unless they adopt them, stepfathers are considered "legal strangers" to their stepchildren.
The Father Involvement Research Alliance is an organisation based in Canada that does significant work on fathers, stepfathers and father figures in the lives of children. Although legalities for the United States and Canada differ somewhat, many of the issues are the same. One important aspect of research is the question of psychological ties and a bond that can grow between a stepchild and a stepfather, even if the stepfather was not a figure in the child's life since infancy.
The potential for stepfathers to become more fully recognised by our legal system as something other than "legal strangers" to their stepchildren is growing. Among the new wave of research being done that points to the validity of the stepfather/child relationship, there are also real cases being made for maintaining continuity in the life of a child by legally acknowledging the role of a stepfather. The following is taken from a blog called "F.R.A.M.E.D. which stands for Family Rights and Many Ending Discrimination," CHICAGO, Jan. 13 /PRNewswire/
In a groundbreaking case that could affect one-third of American families, Cook County Circuit Court Judge John Thomas Carr transferred custody of a 10-month-old child with a severe heart condition to the child's stepfather from the mother.
As courts begin to understand the needs of parents and stepparents to be considered on a case-by-case basis, there might be more of a trend toward recognising the potential of stepparents to fully parent and to warrant rights as parents under the law.
Another avenue to consider is adoption. According to adoption.com, the most common and simplest form of adoption is that of a stepparent adopting a stepchild and thus taking on all the legal obligations and rights of a biological parent.
If you do not use an attorney, legal guidance might be available from a paralegal with experience in stepparent adoptions.