The family of today looks much different than in the past when you consider the rising rate of divorce, single parents, same-sex relationships, and the role of adoption. This has caused legislators in all jurisdictions, to review their family law to ensure that the rights of children are protected. One recent study suggested that as many as one third of all children today can expect to be stepchildren by the age of 18. Given this fact, the rights and responsibilities of stepparents are beginning to be enhanced and expanded. Law is starting to take into consideration the reality that many others besides the birth parents are assuming responsibility for the care and nurturing of minor children.
A stepparent is defined as a person who is a party to the marriage that is subject of the proceeding, with respect to the minor child of the other party to the marriage. Thus, the venue for visitation is within the stepparent and the parent’s dissolution action. The court may not order visitation which would conflict with the right of custody or visitation of a birth parent who is not a party to the proceeding
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 so convincing as in a 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.
Courts have been particularly willing to grant stepparent visitation where the stepparent and natural parent were guardians of the child, the natural parent died, the other natural parent assumed custody, and the stepparent desired to continue the relationship with the child. In this instance, the continued relationship with the stepparent serves as a stabilizing force in the transition from the custody of one natural parent to the other natural parent.