October 2016 – Stepparents and divorce

Twenty months ago I became a mother to my little boy, Bennett. But that wasn’t my first foray into motherhood. Ten years ago I became a stepmother to my husband’s two children and also a pseudo-stepmother to his two stepchildren from his previous marriage as his stepdaughter still lived with him, even though he and her mother had divorced, and his stepson was still in constant contact. When his stepson had a child, I was dubbed “Grandma”, even though I was technically just the spouse of her father’s ex-stepfather (and at 32 years old was way too young to be a grandmother in my mind!). Welcome to the new age of the Modern Happy Family!

My years as a stepmother have obviously made me very sympathetic to the plight of fellow stepparents. Many come into my office with their spouses (the biological parent), who are considering or already engaged in litigation, and are relieved to find out that I “get it” and not only understand, but welcome their involvement as a stepparent. I will fight for their right to participate in the process, but I also warn them that there are limits to what the law can do for them as stepparents.

On the flip side, my years in the practice of law also make me sympathetic to the biological parent who feels like a stepparent is over-stepping their bounds (no pun intended) and complicating an already difficult situation. I have observed many cases where the biological parents had been able to peacefully co-parent after divorce until a new spouse/stepparent joined the mix.

Every step and blended scenario is unique. I am what would be referred to legally as a custodial stepparent, as my stepchildren primarily resided with us. Some stepparents have a long-distance schedule with their stepchildren, some see them every-other weekend, and many these days are on the more popular 50/50 schedule. Some stepparents take a very active, involved role with their stepchildren, some decide they fit better in a role more akin to a friend or aunt/uncle. Some stepparents (and their partners) get along very well with the other parent, while some relationships are cordial, and some are downright toxic.

The term “step,” as applied to mother or father, all too often has negative connotations (thanks a lot, Disney!). I’ve even had people tell me I shouldn’t refer to my stepkids with the “step.” I’m the type who calls it like it is though. In this day and age, stepfamilies and blended families and all sorts of other arrangements are becoming the norm. So, let’s talk about it. What are the rights and responsibilities of the stepparent under the law? How can we better tailor our parenting plans to respect the existence of the step and blended families, while still respecting the superior rights of the biological parents? How do finances play into it? What happens if an involved stepparent divorces the biological parent? Is the law keeping up with all of this? Can it? Should it?

Check out the Owens & Perkins website and our blog pages this month as we will discuss all of these questions and more in a new four-part series.

Owens & Perkins offers free 30 minutes initial consultations. If you would like to schedule a complimentary consultation, please call the office at (480) 630-2464.