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What Are My Rights as a Stepparent?

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Posted By Cohen Family Law | March 23 2022 | Uncategorized

Stepparents play important roles in the lives of their stepchildren. It is no easy task to marry into an established family and try to take over the role of parent. In Washington, the courts recognize certain legal rights that stepparents have by law after marriage. While these rights are typically limited to what the legal parents allow, they can make it easier for a stepparent to feel confident and secure in his or her place in the family.

The Right to Adopt a Stepchild

Stepchild adoption is allowed in Washington and might be the best way for a stepparent to increase his or her parental rights. Adopting a stepchild makes the stepparent the legal parent. This can result in several legal rights being given to the stepparent, such as the right to make important education and health care decisions for the child, as well as custodial rights in the event of a divorce. Before a stepchild can be adopted, however, the other legal parent must terminate his or her parental rights.

The Right to Discipline a Stepchild

A stepparent does not have to have legal custody over a stepchild to have the right to punish the child for bad behavior. A stepparent cannot get into legal trouble for disciplining a child, in most cases. Disciplining or punishing a stepchild is perfectly legal, as long as it does not involve child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, or excessive corporal punishment. 

Custody Rights, in Limited Situations

If a couple gets divorced, it is rare for a stepparent to obtain legal and/or physical custody of a stepchild. The courts are much more likely to reserve child custody for biological parents. However, it is possible to gain custody of a stepchild if one or both legal parents have been found unfit, given up their rights, or passed away. If the stepparent legally adopted the child prior to the divorce, this could also result in custody going to the stepparent in Washington.

Visitation Rights

As of 2018, stepparents in Washington can seek visitation rights with a child that is not legally theirs. A stepparent must file a petition with the Superior Court of Washington to obtain nonparent visits. This petition may be followed by a hearing and written statements from those who agree that the stepparent should have visitation rights. These requests will typically be granted if the courts determine that visitation is in the child’s best interests and that a lack of visitation by the stepparent would cause the child detriment.

If the legal parent of the child does not wish the stepparent to have visitation, the courts will generally assume that the parent knows this to be in a child’s best interests. It then becomes the stepparent’s burden to prove that not having visitation would cause the child harm. In general, to receive visitation rights, a stepparent must have an ongoing and substantial relationship with the child through companionship, interaction, and mutual interest. This is the only way a court will give a stepparent visitation rights post-divorce.

The Right Not to Pay Child Support

 The law in Washington requires stepparents to financially support any stepchildren that live in their household. If the parents get divorced, however, this obligation is terminated. In Washington, child support payments after a dissolution of marriage are only the responsibility of the legal or biological parents, with a few exceptions. If the stepparent has legally adopted the stepchild, for example, he or she will need to make child support payments after a divorce.

The Right to Make Medical Decisions, in Some Cases

It is uncommon for a stepparent to have the legal authority to make health care decisions for a stepchild in Washington. A stepparent will generally only have the right to make medical decisions if there is a written parenting agreement between the stepparent and the legal parent that allows these health care decisions to be made. Otherwise, medical decisions are reserved only for biological parents.

If you have any further questions about the rights of stepparents in Washington, contact Cohen Family Law, LLC to request a free consultation.

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