Becoming a stepfather and taking on the responsibility of raising a nonbiological child is a pretty big decision, especially in situations where the child's biological father is still in the picture. While a stepfather may fill the shoes of dad more than his stepchild's biological father does, there may come a time when his parental rights are challenged or questioned. In the United States, laws on the rights of stepparents vary from state to state. Some rights are inherent upon the union of the stepdad and the child's biological mom, while others can be obtained by order of the court.
School Drop-Off and Pick-Up
Most stepfathers want to be fully involved in the lives of their stepchildren and help their spouse with parenting responsibilities. In the case of duties such as pick-up from school and transportation, a stepfather is within his rights as long as the child's mother has signed an authorization. Families that plan on having stepdad pick the child up from school should make sure to include him on any authorization card or other form necessary.
Involvement in Discipline
The issue of how involved a stepfather is in matters of discipline can be one of the most frustrating challenges, says American Bar Association member John C. Ruck in the “Michigan Bar Journal” article “Discipline of Stepchildren By Stepparents in Cases Involving Joint Custody.” According to Ruck, a stepfather's right to discipline a stepchild can be justified by laws that state that a parent has the right to delegate the authority to discipline a child to a third party. If the child's mother has legal or joint custody, the stepfather can be involved in discipline as long as she consents.
Legal and Medical Decisions
Though a stepfather may be a fully capable guardian, he doesn't automatically have legal right to make medical or legal decisions on behalf of his stepchild. Even in an emergency situation, a stepfather is not automatically allowed to authorize medical treatment of a stepchild - - unless he has legally adopted the child, secured legal guardianship, or depending on the state, has a notarized Power of Attorney form signed by the mother, according to FreeAdvice, an online legal information and advice resource. While a stepfather lacks the legal authority to give consent for his stepchild to receive medical treatment, he is still generally obligated to make sure the child receives medical care if necessary. In the United States, a child will be given emergency services in situations requiring immediate diagnosis, immediate treatment, or alleviation of severe pain, even if a parent, guardian or other authorized person can't be reached, according to FreeAdvice.
It's not uncommon for a stepfather to want to adopt his spouse's children. In the United States, most states make stepparent adoption much easier than regular adoption, according to the "Stepparent Adoption" publication from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. By adopting, a stepfather can become the legal father and gain full responsibility for the child. In cases of adoption, the biological father loses all rights and responsibilities to the child once finalized. Whether the biological father has parental rights or not, a stepfather should make an effort to maintain a civil -- if not friendly -- relationship with him, keeping the best interests of the child in mind.
- Child Welfare Information Gateway (2013). “Stepparent adoption.” Washington, DC. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau
- Child Care Law Center: Releasing Children From Child Care and Custody Issues: With Whom Can the Child Go Home?
- Michigan Bar Journal: Discipline of Stepchildren
- FreeAdvice: Rights of a Stepparent in Making Legal Decisions for Stepchild
- National Stepfamily Resource Center:Can a Stepparent Give Consent for a Stepchild's Medical Care?