Phoenix Stepparent Rights Attorneys

After you’ve married someone who already has children, you may develop a close, caring relationship with your new stepkids. Although you may fulfill many parental roles as a stepparent, Arizona law limits the legal rights of stepparents. However, you can protect your rights as a stepparent and obtain legal recognition for your relationship with your stepchildren. Contact Cohen Family Law for a free case evaluation to discuss how we can help you. 

Understanding Stepparent Rights

When a person marries a spouse who already has children, that person becomes a stepparent, filling a parental role despite the lack of a biological relationship. However, stepparents do not have legal rights to their stepchildren by default. Although the children’s biological parent may consent to their spouse exercising many parental duties, such as supervising the children, taking them to medical appointments, or sitting in on school meetings, ultimately, the child’s biological parents must exercise parental rights under Arizona law. 

Stepparent Rights Under Arizona Law

In Arizona, a stepparent may gain legal rights to their stepchildren during the marriage to the children’s biological parent by seeking stepparent adoption. However, when a stepparent does not seek adoption during the marriage, yet develops a close emotional bond with their stepchildren, continuing that relationship can become complicated if the stepparent divorces the children’s biological parent. A stepparent who has not legally adopted their stepchildren may not seek custody in a divorce proceeding except in limited circumstances.

In the absence of an adoption, a stepparent must meet specific criteria to seek custody rights following a divorce from the children’s biological parent:

  • The stepparent stands “in loco parentis” to their stepchildren, which means showing that the stepparent has formed a parent-child emotional relationship and has served in a parental role for the children.
  • Leaving the children solely in the custody of their biological parents will be substantially detrimental to the children.
  • The court has not issued a custody order within the past year, if the children face an imminent risk of harm.
  • One of the children’s legal parents has died, the legal parents are not currently married, or the legal parents have a pending divorce proceeding.

Courts will consider various factors in determining whether to grant a stepparent custody rights to their stepchildren following divorce from the children’s biological parent, including:

  • The nature of the relationship between the stepparent and stepchild
  • The stepparent’s reasons for seeking custody rights
  • The nature of the custody rights sought and the effect those rights could have on the stepchild’s activities
  • The benefit of maintaining the relationship between the stepparent and stepchild

The Stepparent Adoption Process 

Stepparents can best protect their rights by pursuing adoption. Fortunately, the stepparent adoption process in Arizona involves less complexity than other forms of adoption. For example, a stepparent seeking to adopt their stepchildren does not need to go through the certification process or submit to a placement study or accounting review. However, stepparents must submit to fingerprinting and a background check.

Stepparents become eligible to adopt their stepchildren after 12 months of marriage to the stepchild’s biological parent and six months of living with the stepchild. The stepparent’s spouse must consent to the adoption. Stepchildren 12 and older also have the right to consent to their adoption. 

Before a stepparent may adopt a stepchild, the child’s other biological parent must have either passed away or have their parental rights terminated. The stepchild’s other biological parent may agree to surrender their parental rights to facilitate the stepparent adoption. Otherwise, the stepparent must pursue the more complicated process of involuntarily terminating the other biological parent’s parental rights. 

The stepparent adoption process begins by filing a petition to adopt in the district where the stepchild resides and serving notice of the petition on the child’s biological parents. Unless the stepchild’s other biological parent consents to the adoption, the stepparent must also file a petition to terminate the other biological parent’s rights. A stepparent seeking to terminate the other biological parent’s rights involuntarily must establish one or more statutory grounds for the termination and show that it will serve the child’s best interests. 

The court will schedule a hearing to consider the petition to adopt and any petitions to terminate parental rights. The stepchild must appear at the adoption hearing unless excused by the court. If the court finds that the stepparent has met the requirements for adoption, it will enter an order granting the adoption petition (after terminating the other biological parent’s rights, if necessary).

Benefits of Stepparent Adoption

By adopting their stepchildren, stepparents can gain numerous legal benefits, such as:

  • Obtaining legal recognition of the parent-child relationship
  • Gaining legal custody, which confers the right to make medical, educational, and other decisions for the child
  • The right to demand custody upon divorcing the child’s biological parent
  • Having the child treated the same as a biological child for inheritance purposes

How Legal Guidance Can Benefit Stepparents

Hiring a family law attorney can give you the support you need to stand up for your rights and interests as a stepparent. Whether you choose to pursue stepparent adoption or want to fight to preserve your relationship with your stepchildren after divorcing their biological parent, the legal team at Cohen Family Law can help by explaining your legal options and what to expect in the court process. Attorney Mitchell E. Cohen offers clients top-tier personal service and experienced legal representation that allows stepparents to obtain a favorable resolution to family disputes. 

Contact a Phoenix Family Law Attorney Today

If you have a blended family, you may have developed a close, loving relationship with your spouse’s children. Get the legal help you need to secure your rights as a stepparent under Arizona law. Contact Cohen Family Law today for a free initial consultation with an experienced family law attorney to discuss your legal options as a stepparent.