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Although fictional stepparents have made the lives of stepchildren awful in fairy tales and movies, many people are surprised to learn that real life stepparents routinely don't have any actual legal authority over their stepchildren. Without the consent of the legally recognized parents, a stepparent cannot send a stepchild to military/boarding school, make medical decisions, or make other decisions that parents routinely make.
Fortunately, there are options for stepparents that want to be more involved in their stepchild's lives. Apart from discussing a stepparent's role to informally set what decisions they may make, there are are formal, legal ways for a stepparent to become the legal parent of a stepchild. The two most frequently utilized options are adoption and parenting agreements.
In order to have a stepparent be legally recognized as a stepchild's parent adoption is generally necessary. This can be difficult when the other parent is still in the picture as, in a majority of states, adoption requires the other biological or legally recognized parent to terminate or give up all legal parental rights. While most states only allow a child to have two legal parents, the following states have recognized third-parent adoptions on a case-by-case basis:
When the other parent is deceased, absent, or has already terminated parental rights, adopting the stepchildren will be easier to accomplish. Regardless, the process is complex and requires emotionally-charged discussions about important familial decisions.
While a stepparent may not be the legal guardian of a child, in many situations, parents will draft agreements that discuss the legal role of stepparents. These agreements can include provisions that allow the stepparent to make certain decisions either under certain circumstances, or at their discretion. Usually, the agreements will be formalized as power of attorney agreements, or in another way.
An advantage to using a parenting agreement is that it allows a stepparent to make the day-to-day decisions a regular parent needs to be able to make, while balancing the legal/biological parents rights. Also, with a parenting agreement, the biological/legal parents can regain full legal custody if the marriage with the stepparent ends. This may not be possible after an adoption. It is important to have legal help when drafting these agreements.