Arons & Solomon | March 17, 2022 | Child Custody
This is an important question for many stepparents who are separating from a child’s biological parent because oftentimes they have developed close bonds with their stepchild. A stepparent is often one of the only parents a child has ever known. Many stepparents consider their stepchild as their own and have participated in all areas of their life, including school activities, sports, and the highs and lows of life.
Therefore, the thought of having to sever all ties seems unfair and frequently isn’t in the best interests of the child. This is why speaking to an experienced family law attorney will help clarify any confusion on this issue and determine what rights, if any, a stepparent may have under the circumstances.
What Rights Do Stepparents Have in New Jersey?
Unfortunately, New Jersey law does not explicitly explain the rights or responsibilities of a stepparent. New Jersey defines a “parent” as a natural parent or adoptive parent.
Not every stepparent goes through the legal process to adopt their stepchild. Therefore, generally, stepparents have no legal rights to child visitation if the biological parents refuse to allow them to see the child. It is believed that the biological parents are best able to make decisions regarding who their child spends time with and when. If the stepparent adopted the child, then that stepparent would have the same rights as a biological parent and be entitled to any protections of a legal parent.
While stepparents are not usually entitled to have custody or visitation rights of non-biological children, a local child visitation lawyer may be able to help negotiate visitation rights in some circumstances.
When Can a Stepparent Seek Visitation of a Child?
There are instances when third parties, such as a stepparent, may have grounds to seek visitation or temporary custody of a child. Typically, this involves a situation where it is deemed that the biological parents are unfit or physically unable to care for the child. For example, a biological parent may be deemed unfit due to a drug problem, a physical disability, or if the biological parents are incarcerated or endangered the child.
If the biological parents are deemed unfit, a third party (stepparent) may institute an action in New Jersey Superior Court to request care and custody of the child. The Court will investigate the circumstances, and if the stepparent is deemed fit, the Court will issue an order committing the child to the care and custody of the stepparent.
However, outside of those limited circumstances, when a blended family separates, a stepparent is generally not going to be considered for parental responsibilities or timesharing like they would be if they were a biological or adoptive parent – even if it is clearly in the best interests of the child (which is the standard used in cases involving visitation).
What is the Psychological Parent Doctrine?
On occasion, the psychological parent doctrine may be used or asserted in the case of stepparents who have formed a deep bond with a child and lived with the child in a parental role for a significant period of time. Typically, this is initiated with the consent of at least one of the biological parents. These de facto parents who have essentially acted as parents to the child for years may not have ever taken steps to gain legal parental status through adoption and therefore risk being cut off from the child if a custody or visitation battle arises.
New Jersey courts have allowed third parties who have lived with a child and the child’s biological parent to achieve psychological parent status with the legal parent’s consent. As with any child custody and visitation issue, the courts look primarily to the best interests of the child.
In New Jersey, legal parents can object to grandparent visitation unless the disruption of that relationship would be harmful to the child. That suggests a similar argument could be made for a stepparent to maintain a relationship with the child. A stepparent would have to show that if contact with the stepparent was terminated, it would cause harm to the child given that this person has established a parental bond, having lived and cared for the child for a significant period of time.
Contact a Family Law Attorney for Help with Stepparent Visitation Rights
If you or someone you love wants to protect your relationship with a child or maximize your parental rights, contact an experienced family law attorney for guidance on your specific situation. An attorney will understand that many stepparents love their stepchildren no differently than a biological child, and having to sever that relationship completely is undoubtedly painful for all involved.
Contact the Bergen County Family and Divorce Law Firm of Arons & Solomon Divorce Lawyers for more help
Contact the experienced family attorneys at Arons & Solomon Divorce Lawyers today for legal assistance. Visit our law office in Bergen County or give us a call at (201) 487-1199 to schedule an appointment. to schedule a free consultation with our team.