It’s important to recognize that step-parents are a common and familiar part of everyday life, and just like their partners, everyone may want to know their legal rights and responsibilities regarding their step-children. Over time, many step-parents who spend time with their step-children develop a strong attachment and commitment to those youngsters – taking responsibility for them on a moral and financial level. However, somewhat crucially, a step-parent doesn’t automatically receive standing in New York to ask a court for custody or parenting time rights if a mother and father are already legally established. Step-parents do not instantly receive the “parental authority”, including the rights, powers, duties, and responsibility of a biological mother or father, simply because they marry the child’s mother or father. Step parents do not gain parenting time and visitation rights except if they are legally appointed guardian, adopt or if there is a paternity finding for the step-parent.
Step-parents may be required to pay for child support, while married to the other parent of the child (ren) if the children involved are in danger of becoming “public charges”. Frequently, this information can act as an incentive to prompt parties into getting a divorced finalized, if other compelling reasons haven’t presented themselves. If the children are not in danger of becoming public charges, usually step-parents are not in danger of becoming obligated for child support of their spouse’s children, that is, unless they become a parent by the legal doctrine called equitable estoppel.
There is such a thing, as I have previously blogged about in connection with paternity, as “estoppel” parents. Child custody and child support are appropriate topics to be dealt with for estoppel parents like biological parents. Equitable estoppel can be applied by a court if a step-father (or non step-father) holds the child out to be his own regardless of the lack of a biological relationship. In these situations, the step-father, if there is not another person identified legally as the father, might be found by a court to be the father, regardless of what results a DNA test might have shown. As in many family law cases regarding children, findings to apply equitable estoppel given by the court must be found in the best interests of the children, or child. Equitable estoppel is not designed to allow for the enforcement of rights against someone that would otherwise lead to fraud or injustice. Equitable estoppel is a way for a parent to hold themselves out as the parent of a child, which can be regularly done by exercising parenting time, or providing support. To a degree, the estoppel doctrine prevents any step-parent from going back on a promise or changing a position that would harm the child.
If one party makes a motion for DNA testing, the law provides that the court should order genetic marker or DNA testing, unless the court determines, in writing, that the test would not be in the best interests of the child. This could be due to equitable estoppel, res-judicata (a Latin term meaning the issue has been judicially determined), or the presumption of legitimacy of a child born to a married woman. If any of the afore-mentioned circumstances were in place, the court would not permit the test. Estoppel may be raised by the step-parent who wishes to be identified as a parent, or against a person that no longer wants to be identified as a parent – and this can regularly come into play with step-parent situations.
Step-parents who are looking to be more involved in a child’s life from a legal perspective can apply for guardianship, so long as the appropriate parties consent to such an action. In New York, there is often not a great deal of distinction between a child’s guardian, and someone with custody, but in other States, the differences can be far more prominent. Often, when an individual is given “custody” over a child, the term is used to refer to that person’s status as parents (or grandparents in certain instances can petition for custody), whereas the title of “guardian” can be given to relatives of various different connections, from uncles and aunts, to grandparents, and even non-relatives. The term “guardianship” is used to refer to a person’s obligations to a child in taking care for them and looking after their best interests. According to the law of New York, any adult relatives, friends of the family, or even child protective agencies are able to petition for guardianship over a child, and children that are older than fourteen might even enter their own petitions for someone to be appointed as their guardian.
Because the way that custody and guardianship is defined in New York can differ to other States, I often recommend that my clients consider the possibility that they and their family may, in the future, move their home to a different state when deciding whether they should petition for custody or guardianship. It is important to think about the laws in different locations, and the fact that health insurance plans can often differ significantly when determining whether they require custody or guardianship.
Sometimes, it’s possible for testamentary guardianship to be given to individuals by parents of children through their wills. For example, it is possible to designate a “standby guardian” in cases where the current guardian or parent in question has a progressive fatal or chronic disease. In this situation, the standby guardian would be available to care for the child in future situations, in case of the event that the current custodian or guardian was incapacitated, or passed away. Step-parents can be considered for such a designation.
Today, step-parents are regarded as an important financial and emotional resource for children. In some cases, the court will even choose to place children with step-parents pursuant to a neglect case, however – it’s worth noting that placement through a neglect case doesn’t lead to permanent placement, and can be easily changed from one court appearance to the next. Step-parent adoption is a way that a spouse is able to gain complete parental rights within the state of New York, for their step children. This can be an important consideration for straight and gay couples alike. When a step-parent receives parental responsibility, they will have the same abilities to seek parental rights as a biological parent. Please see my other blog articles, and website pages for more information about adoption.
As always, if you would like to learn more about family law, the rights and responsibilities of step-parents, or any other legal matter, please see our other web pages and blog entries for information. Furthermore, feel free to call us about your initial consultation too – it would be our pleasure to speak with you about your needs.