Parenting Rights for Step-Parents
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 recognize 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 the children's other parent is still involved, a stepparent's continued relationship with children can be a difficult situation to navigate.
Obtaining Legal Rights and Responsibilities
The process for obtaining legal rights and responsibilities for stepchildren can vary greatly by location. Below is an outline for how stepparent adoption and legal guardianship work generally in Canada, but local family law practitioners should always be consulted for information about the particulars in your region.
Adoption of a stepchild forms permanent legal ties between stepparents and children, with all the rights and responsibilities of a biological parent. 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. 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, it will likely be unsuccessful and possibly damaging to familial relationships.
If a biological parent opposes a step-parent 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 step-parent 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 step-parent may wish to pursue adoption. Although most provinces require consent from the parent forfeiting their parental rights and responsibilities in order to proceed, this requirement may be waived in certain cases of neglect or abuse.
When a child is of a certain age, certain provinces require their consent to being adopted by their stepparent for the petition to be accepted by the court. The age at which this is a requirement can vary by location, so parents should ask a family law professional about the specifics of their region’s step-parent adoption laws.
A legal guardianship differs from step-parent adoption in that it does not sever the legal ties between children and a biological parent. If a step-parent is appointed a legal guardian of their step-child, biological parents still retain legal and financial responsibilities for their children. Many places allow for a child to have more than two legal guardians. Guardianship relationships also differ from stepparent adoption in that they typically only last until a child reaches the legal age of majority or when a court determines that the guardianship is no longer necessary or in the best interests of the child.
When applying for guardianship through a court order, the courts will determine whether the appointment of a guardian would be in the best interests of the children. When applying for guardianship, step-parents must typically provide information about the nature of their relationship with the child, where the child lives, how they plan on being involved in the child's upbringing, and reasons as to why it's in their best interests to have them as a guardian.
In certain provinces, parents have the option of assigning guardianship to another adult in their will, executable upon their death. However, this is typically only allowed when that parent is the sole guardian of their children.
Contact 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 recognize 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 the birth parents, the surviving biological parent may be more reluctant to further facilitate the relationship between their children and a stepparent.
If all parties involved are able to work together, however, families should pursue the inclusion of guidelines for continuing stepfamily relationships in their parenting agreement. It's important to remember that these arrangements are only binding when all parties who have parental responsibility for the children are in agreement. If parents do not agree on maintaining stepfamily connections after a divorce or death, stepparents can apply for a contact order with the courts. Contact orders, when granted, allow individuals to spend time with the children involved.
Depending on the length and nature of their relationship, a step-parent may be responsible for child support after their divorce or separation from the biological parent of their stepchildren. In certain provinces, the relationship between a stepparent and their stepchildren is considered when determining child support. For stepparents residing in Alberta, for instance, applying for a contact order should always be done with the understanding that it may be accompanied with a corresponding responsibility to contribute financially to a child's upbringing.
Not all step-parents will be liable for child support payments, however. Provinces have criteria to determine when child support is appropriate, typically looking at the length of the step-parent's relationship with the birth parent, if they lived with the children, if they financially supported the children during their relationship, and the length of time between the end of the relationship and the application for child support. Step-parents should consult a family law professional for more information about the guidelines that determine child support obligations in their area.
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.
NOTE: Many state and federal laws use terms like ‘custody’ when referring to arrangements regarding parenting time and decision-making for a child. While this has been the case for many years, these are not the only terms currently used to refer to these topics.
Today, many family law practitioners and even laws within certain states use terms such as ‘parenting arrangements’ or ‘parenting responsibility,’ among others, when referring to matters surrounding legal and physical child custody. You will find these terms as well as custody used on the OurFamilyWizard website.