Step-Parent's Rights After a Divorce

By Meg MacKenzie

Happy mother with her son series image by Alexey Stiop from

Many stepparents develop close relationships with their spouse’s children, and may even feel like a parent to the children themselves. During a divorce, stepparents can lose all legal rights to their ex-spouse’s children, even resulting in total loss of contact with them. However, for any stepparent wishing to maintain a relationship with his stepchildren after a divorce, there are several ways to gain legal rights.


If a stepparent adopts his spouse’s child before the divorce, he will gain all legal rights to the child that would be afforded to a biological parent. To proceed with this option, the uninvolved parent must agree to give up his or her legal rights to the child, since a child cannot have 3 legal parents. If the child’s biological parent will not agree to give up his rights, the court can force him to, if proof is offered that he is not involved with the child, or is a harmful influence.

Primary Custody

In a divorce, a stepparent’s legal ties to his spouse’s children are cut, unless he has already legally adopted them. If not, it may still be possible to maintain involvement by seeking legal custody during the divorce. If it is proven that the stepparent has a strong relationship with the child, primary custody may even be awarded.


Even if a stepparent is not awarded, or does not seek, primary custody, it is still possible for him to maintain a relationship with his ex-spouse’s children after the divorce. Visitation rights may be awarded to a stepparent in the divorce agreement. These stepparent rights come with parental responsibilities. A stepparent who is awarded visitation rights may also be required to pay child support or otherwise assist the primary caregiver in the care of the child.

Biological Parent Involvement

The legal rights of a stepparent after a divorce are determined by several factors, including the level of involvement of the child’s other parents. If a biological parent is already paying child support to the primary caregiver, the stepparent may be able to retain visitation rights after a divorce without the responsibility of child support. However, if a child has two active biological parents, it will be impossible for a stepparent to legally adopt, and winning custody will be far less likely.

Read More: Non-Biological Fathers' Rights

Stepparent-Child Relationship

The relationship between the child and his stepparent is the most important factor in determining the stepparent’s rights after a divorce. An involved stepparent who seeks visitation or custody of his child is more likely to get it than a stepparent who does not push hard for these rights. The court often takes into account the preferences of older children, so if a stepparent and child have a close relationship, the child’s familial feelings will likely result in at least some parental rights being granted to the stepparent.

Other Considerations

Divorce laws vary by state, so make sure to talk to a lawyer to find out the laws in your state before you pursue rights to your spouse’s children.