The role of a stepparent is not legally the same as that of a biological parent, but it is undisputed that stepparents often play an integral role in providing a loving and nurturing environment for their stepchildren. Stepparents develop strong bonds with their step-children, and unfortunately, few people truly see just how important some stepparents are in the life of a child until challenges arise within the blended family.
What happens in the event that the state removes a child from his/her biological parent’s custody? How do blended families conduct their estate planning affairs to ensure the needs of the stepchildren are met? Do stepparents have legal parental rights? In the worst scenario, where does the stepparent stand if the once loving, nurturing family unit is broken? While spouses may choose to end their relationship, does that mean that the strong bond between the stepparent and the stepchild has to end as well? As the traditional family has been redefined, Tennessee (like many other states) has recently passed new laws to answer those questions.
Tennessee law gives stepparents legal rights in three areas.
- First, stepparents have a preference for placement in kinship foster care of stepchildren in the event that they are removed from the homes of their biological parents.
- Second, stepparents have a preference for the adoption placement of stepchildren.
- Finally, stepparents have a right to reasonable visitation when sought as a part of a divorce.
In circumstances where the state has removed a child from the custody of his/her natural parent, a stepparent may be eligible for approval child as a kinship foster parent, which allows the child to maintain a connection with his/her family. Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-2-414(b)(3)(A)
For blended families where the stepparent has established a strong, significant bond with the stepchild and the other natural parent is absent, the stepparent may petition the court to adopt the stepchild. However, as with all adoptions, the natural parent’s parental rights would have to be terminated. The natural parent could voluntarily consent to relinquish his/her parental rights, or the stepparent could petition the court to terminate the natural parent’s parental for abandoning the child by willful failure to provide financial support or willful failure to maintain contact/visitation with the child. Also, as a stepparent adoption, the court has the discretion to waive other typical adoption requirements such as home studies. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-1-117(f)
Finally, in the event that marriage between a stepparent and a child’s natural parent dissolves, the stepparent may seek to maintain the relationship with the stepchild by seeking visitation rights with the child. The court would need only find that visitation would in the child’s best interest, and the stepparent provides support for the child. Tenn. Code Ann. § 36-6-303
Many courts assume that step-parents have no rights, so you need an experienced attorney who has credibility with the court to educate them. If you are a stepparent eager to maintain your presence in your step-child’s life, you are going to need an experienced attorney to protect your rights.
Attorney Margaret Held thanks Advocacy Project Senior Law Clerk, Ashley McGhee, for her assistance with this blog.