Rights of a Stepdad vs. the Biological Father
By Robin Elizabeth Margolis
A biological father, also known as a birth father, has stronger legal rights over his child than the child's stepdad. American law favors biological fathers over stepfathers. If you are a stepfather, you can use various legal procedures to strengthen your rights to a stepchild, including obtaining a power of attorney from your stepchild's biological father, putting your stepchild into your will and other estate planning documents, and legally adopting your stepchild.
Stepfathers have fewer rights to stepchildren because of deeply rooted historical prejudices against blended families. Early Roman empire law made divorces easy to obtain and recognized stepfamilies. The European medieval Christian culture that replaced the Roman empire opposed divorce and favored biological fathers. American colonial law deprived stepparents of custody for child abuse and inheritance embezzlement more often than biological parents accused of the same crimes. Stepfathers' rights continue to remain legally weak and vary from one state to the next.
Power of Attorney
As a stepfather living with a biological mother who has physical custody of her children by a previous marriage or relationship, your rights are limited. You cannot make legal or medical decisions on behalf of your stepchild, such as what school your stepchild attends or what medical facility your stepchild will be sent to. Your child's biological mother and father have the decision making power in these areas. Some states will allow you to seek delegation of these rights from the biological father through a power of attorney form, in which the biological father gives you the right to make such decisions on behalf of a minor child.
If you do not specifically name your stepchild in your will, your stepchild cannot inherit anything from you and your assets will go to your biological and adopted children. You must add your stepchild in your will and other estate planning documents to insure that your stepchild can inherit assets from your estate. You can also make your stepchild the beneficiary of an annuity and other income-producing arrangements within your lifetime or after your death.
In some instances, your stepchild's biological father may be uninterested or unable to parent your stepchild. You and the child's biological mother can arrange for you to legally adopt your stepchild. Legal adoption gives your stepchild the same legal status as your biological or adopted children and cuts off your stepchild's connection to his biological father and other biological relatives. Through legal adoption, you assume all the rights previously held by your stepchild's biological father.
The issues of stepchild support and custody are governed by different laws in each state. You may wish to consult the Family Law Organization's links to the family laws in all fifty states, "Family Law Code," to get an idea of the responsibilities that you will be assuming if you seek more rights to your stepchild. Strengthening your legal ties to your stepchild can create or expand child support and custody obligations that you were not previously obligated to carry out, depending on the laws of your state.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway: Stepparent Adoption
- SupportGuidelines.com:The Duty of Stepparents to Support Their Stepchildren
- Lawyers.com: Stepchildren and Your Will
- FreeAdvice.com: Rights of a Stepparent in Making Legal Decisions for Stepchild
- National Stepfamily Resource Center: United States Law Degrades Stepfamilies
- Family Law Organization: Family Law Code
- Helpguide.org: Guide to Stepparenting and Blended Families
- Child Welfare Information Gateway: The Rights of Unmarried Fathers
- Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society: Stepparents in the United States
- Public Broadcasting Corporation: The Roman Empire in the First Century -- Weddings, Marriages and Divorce
- New Advent: Summa Theologica -- Question 67. The Bill of Divorce
Robin Elizabeth Margolis is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area. She has been writing about health care, science, nutrition, fitness and law since 1988, and served as the editor of a health law newsletter. Margolis holds a bachelor of arts degree in biology, a master's degree in counseling and a paralegal certificate.