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The relationship between a stepparent and stepchild can be complicated, both emotionally and legally. Depending on a variety of factors -- your legal relationship with the step child's biological parent(s), whether you've legally adopted the stepchild, whether the child's biological parents are alive or involved in his or her life, and even where you live -- your legal rights and responsibilities concerning your stepchild may differ.
And, sadly, divorce only complicates matters further. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding a stepparent's legal status following a divorce, and where you can find the answers.
What Are My Custody Rights?
In almost every court in every state, regardless of the underlying legal relationship, child custody decisions are made based on the best interests of the child. As a stepparent battling for custody or visitation rights, there are several factors that may affect this decision.
If you have legally adopted your stepchild, courts may be more likely to grant visitation or custody rights. Generally courts favor joint custody agreements and will do their best to maintain a stable living arrangement for the child, taking into account proximity to family and schools. And, depending on the age of the child, the wishes of the child may be considered.
What Are My Child Support Responsibilities?
Stepparents generally have no legal obligation to provide for their stepchildren, and most states don't have statutes imposing financial responsibilities on a stepparent while the stepchild is living in the household. Some states, however, do mandate support for stepchildren -- especially if you have legally adopted them -- and this financial support may continue after a divorce.
The amount of support may depend on whether the child is receiving support from both biological parents, the earning potential for parents and stepparents, and the child's standard of living before the divorce. In some cases, you may be ordered to pay child support to the child's biological parent until the divorce is final.
How Do I Figure All This Out?
Depending on how amicable your divorce is, you could come to an out-of-court agreement with your ex regarding custody and support and most judges will sign off. If, however, your divorce is a bit more contentious or you just want to know your legal footing before negotiating such an agreement, you should contact an experienced family law attorney.