Among all of the difficulties and hardships faced during a divorce proceeding, divorce can create a beautiful new relationship between a child and their stepparent. As families blend, stepparents bond with their stepchildren and treat them as their own.
What happens if you fall in love with your stepchild, but your relationship with their biological parent ends?
Do stepparents have custody rights in Arizona?
Generally speaking, the rights to a child remain with their natural parents even after those parents divorce. In Arizona, very few circumstances exist where biological parents would lose their rights to their children. Some of those circumstances are as follows:
- Emotional abuse
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Consent to adoption
Absent any of these situations, it is unlikely that the rights of the biological parents would be taken away. Therefore, a stepparent does not automatically have legal rights as guardians of their stepchildren.
Unfortunately, despite a close bond and their best interests in mind, you do not have legal authority over your stepchildren as a stepparent.
In Loco Parentis
Even though a stepparent is not the child’s biological parent, they could be considered to be a parent in loco parentis. “In loco parentis” is a Latin term that translates to “in the place of the parent.”
Courts interpret this term to mean that persons acting in loco parentis are individuals that have such a close relationship with a child that they act and function as a parent.
For example, the Arizona Court of Appeals held that a child’s stepfather, who had lived with the child from the time that child was two months old and had been the only genuine father that child had known, was an in loco parentis guardian and was, therefore, entitled to visitation rights.
Arizona law recognizes in loco parentis relationships; however, for a stepparent to have parental rights under this doctrine, they must meet a few requirements. First, sufficient evidence must prove that the stepparent and stepchild have a meaningful relationship.
This is hard for most stepparents to prove because courts generally presume that a child’s biological parents retain rights to that child unless extreme circumstances are met.
Second, the stepparent has to prove that the child would face a detrimental impact if removed from the stepparent and placed with their biological parents. When courts consider whether the child would be detrimentally impacted, they consider certain things. For example, courts balance each of the following factors:
- The relationship between the child and the stepparent
- The stepparent’s relationship with significant people in the child’s life
- The impact on the child’s home, school, and community
- The child’s age and maturity
- The wishes of the child
If any of these factors weigh heavily against a stepparent taking over parental rights, it’s unlikely that the stepparent will be granted in loco parentis rights.
Lastly, suppose the child’s biological parents are both alive, still married, and have not begun divorce proceedings. In that case, Arizona law does not allow for a stepparent or any other individual to step in as an in loco parentis guardian.
Visitation Rights After a Divorce
Even if you do not meet the requirement of an in loco parentis relationship, Arizona courts sometimes permit visitation rights to stepparents.
To do this, the stepparent needs to get a court order granting the stepparent visitation rights. Courts only grant court orders if visitation is in the best interests of the child. This option should be used as a last resort and only be considered if all other avenues have been exhausted.
Fight for Your Rights to Your Stepchildren
The attorneys at Cohen Family Law in Phoenix, Arizona, understand the bond between a stepchild and a stepparent. Call us today and let our experienced attorneys help you through your custody battle.