Are You Really the Parent or Not?

The life of a stepparent is full of conflicting messages. You’re supposed to treat the kids like your own, but you’re not supposed to overstep your boundaries. You may get criticized for using the “step” to describe your stepchildren, but don’t you dare allow them to call you Mom/Dad- that’s disrespectful of the other parent! You should definitely be responsible for shuttling them to team practices and sleepovers, but attending doctor’s appointments may be crossing a line. You should help them with homework, but it’s too awkward for you to go the parent-teacher conference. Rinse and repeat.

Most of these types of- let’s call them “involvement level”- issues are handled by families outside of court. However, parents do come into my office to consult about these same “involvement level” issues to see if they can file anything with the court to address it. Obviously, my advice is very fact-specific, so I can’t give you a blanket yes or no here. If it’s a scenario involving legal decision-making authority, that’s a bit easier for me- a stepparent cannot make legal decisions on behalf of the child. For instance, even a very involved, long-term stepparent does not get a one-third vote on if that child should have their tonsils removed. However, if your question is whether or not the stepparent should go to the meeting with the doctor to discuss the issue, I will have more questions for you before I can advise you. But what I would ask anyone coming in for a consultation on involvement level issues is this- is the behavior you want to litigate over affecting the well-being of the child? If you answer yes, I will ask you how. I am not attempting to give you a hard time, but to really prepare you for the same questions that the Judge will likely ask.

Another sad issue that must be faced from time to time is what legal rights does a stepparent have in regards to the children should they divorce the biological parent. Or, even worse, what about if their spouse passes away while the children are minors? Again, there are no easy answers. If the biological parent agrees you can see the child during his/her parenting time that is a much easier and more amicable route to go than litigation. However, this is not always an option. Arizona has a statute which addresses third party rights- A.R.S. §25-409. If you are a stepparent wishing to assert your rights under these circumstances, that is the first place we are likely to look to see if you have standing to bring your case to a judge and then to advise you of the likelihood of success. The burden you must meet to obtain legal decision-making rights to the child is extremely high, and only applies in very rare cases – usually when the biological parents are unfit and unable to care for the child. Visitation is a little easier, but there are still several factors that must be considered to determine, first if you have the right to bring your case and assert a right to visitation, and then what kind of restrictions that the parents have a right to place upon your visitation with the child. These are very difficult cases, both emotionally and legally- please consult with an attorney first to make sure you are setting yourself up with the best chance for success should you opt to litigate this issue.

If you’re a biological parent or stepparent dealing with “involvement level” issues or looking to retain a relationship with your stepchild even after divorce or death of the biological parent, please call OWENS & PERKINS at(480) 994-8824 to schedule your free 30-minute consultation with one of our experienced attorneys..