In most circumstances, stepparents have no custody or visitation rights to minor children after divorcing the biological parents. The only time when they do is if they created a legal connection by adopting the children. However, as with any rule, there are exceptions. If you're a stepparent who wants custody of the kids you helped raise with your ex-partner, here's information on how it may be possible to obtain it.
Best Interests of the Children
The courts' top concern in child custody cases is what's in the best interests of the children, and judges have been known to award custody of kids to stepparents when it becomes apparent that either the biological parents are unfit or that severing the relationship with the stepparents would be harmful to the kids. Therefore, there are a couple of ways you can go about fighting for custody of your stepchildren.
The first way is to show the relationship between you and your stepchildren is so meaningful and consequential that ending it would be harmful to them. There are several things the courts will look at when making this determination:
- How involved you were in the children's lives
- How long you were married to the biological parent
- The financial support you provided to the kids
- The emotional relationship between you and the kids
- Any negative interactions you've had with the kids and/or the biological parent
- The age of children when you met them and when the divorce occurred
- What the child wants
In many cases, time will be your greatest asset. The longer you were married to or involved with the biological parent, the higher the chance the court will award you custody (or at least visitation rights). This is because you are more likely to have established a parental relationship with the kids the longer you are with them, especially if you married their biological parent when they were young.
However, people can establish deep emotional ties even in short periods of time. So providing the court evidence of the kids' emotional connection to you (e.g., via psychological evaluations) can also be helpful in convincing the court you deserve an equal shot of having custody of the kids. For example, one man was able to gain joint—and eventually sole—custody of his stepchild in part because a psychological assessment confirmed how close he and the child were.
Be aware, though, that the courts will sometimes place a priority on what the biological parent wants. If the biological parent doesn't want you to have custody or visitation, the court may feel this outweighs any potential harm to the kids (or even may contribute to it) and deny your petition.
The other way to gain custody of your stepchildren is to show the biological parents are unfit. Many states allow third parties to petition for custody of kids, regardless of whether they have a biological connection or not. If you can show that the kids' biological parents do not have the means or ability to care for them, then the court may be amendable to giving you custody of the children.
For example, if you can prove the biological parent is physically abusive to the kids, then that may sway the court to your side. It's important to note, though, you may still have to wrestle with the second biological parent and or any other relatives (e.g. grandparents, aunts, and uncles) for custody, which may be challenging to do if those people also have good relationships with the kids.
Getting Help with Custody Issues
Gaining custody of stepchildren when you're the stepparent can be immensely challenging, but it's not an impossible feat. There may be other options available for winning the court to your side in the case. It's essential that you speak to a custody lawyer who can provide sound advice on the matter and help you develop a strategy that may lead to the outcome you want.