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Stepparents' Rights

Due to the rising rate of divorce, single parents, same-sex relationships and the role of adoption, the family of today looks much different than in the past. This trend has caused legislators all over the country to review their family law to ensure the rights of children are protected. A recent study stated that as many as one third of all children today can expect to be stepchildren by the age of 18.

A stepparent adoption is desirable when a child resides with a biological parent who has married someone who is not the child's biological parent, but who wants to adopt the child. Frequently, stepparent adoptions occur with the consent of both biological parents. Sometimes, however, stepparent adoptions are complicated and are the subject of intense litigation requiring an involuntary termination of parental rights. Whether consensual or not, our law firm can provide you with representation in any North Carolina stepparent adoption case.

Stepparents may have the right to sue a custodial parent for partial custody or visitation of the custodial parent's minor children. This generally occurs when the stepparent and custodial parent have resided together and assumed the joint role of supporting and caring for the custodial parent's minor children. If the custodial parent denies access to the stepchildren, a stepparent can file a complaint for partial custody or visitation. In limited circumstances, if the stepparent's spouse was the custodial parent and dies, the stepparent may be able to be awarded primary custody of the custodial parent's minor children even if there is a surviving biological parent or other blood relatives.

A stepparent may obtain visitation if the court finds that it would be in the child's best interests. If a protective order, either enjoining a person from specific acts of abuse or an exclusion order has been granted, the court must consider whether best interests requires that visitation be denied. A court will take into consideration:

  • The degree of significant participation in the life of the child, including length of time stepparent may have stood in as the de facto parent;
  • The existence of an emotional relationship between the stepparent and stepchild
  • The degree of financial assistance provided by the stepparent;
  • Detriment to the child if visitation is denied.

When seeking visitation, a third party must show reasons to overcome the parent's prima facie right to uninterrupted custody. However, the reasons need not be as convincing as in a child custody case. In a custody case, the third party must convince the court that it is in the child's best interest to take custody from a parent and award it to a third party. In a visitation case, the third party need only convince the court that it is in the child's best interest to give some time to the third party. As the amount of time requested moves the visit further from a visit and closer to custody, the reasons offered in support of the request must become correspondingly more convincing.
In North Carolina, the stepparent is not required to continue the support after a divorce without a formalized agreement. Contributions of a third party may be used to support a deviation from the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines. This generally places a higher burden on the payee to prove the actual expenses as well as how much contribution is being made by the step-parent, but it is feasible. Generally, however, a stepparent is not under an obligation to provide support for a minor child from a spouse's previous marriage.

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Charles R. Ullman & Associates


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