Under New Jersey law, a child can only have two legal parents, even though in reality the child may have a stepfather, stepmother, or other “de facto” parental figure involved in their lives. And while those child/stepparent bonds may be as strong as a biological tie, stepparents have few legal rights when it comes to the custody of stepchildren in a divorce.
No matter how long the marriage may have lasted, a stepparent has no standing to seek custody or visitation rights during a divorce that supersede a biological parent’s rights. Even if the biological parent is unfit, custody will typically revert to the other biological parent instead of the stepparent.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule. If both biological parents are unfit and it can be proven that abuse has occurred, a stepparent may be able to request custody if it will be in the best interests of the child to be placed with that stepparent. However, in most cases, New Jersey courts will have a preference for a blood relative to be named custodian of a child.
But while the court’s preference may be for a child to be in the custody of a biological parent or blood relative, there is legal precedent for giving a stepparent custody if both legal parents are unavailable or unable to care for a child as long as the child has a close parental relationship with the stepparent. To gain custody, a stepparent must prove that his or her relationship with a stepchild is the same as that of a legal parent and the absence of that relationship would cause harm to the child.
Adoption is the only sure way for stepparents to gain parental rights to a stepchild. To open the way for a stepparent to adopt, a legal parent must sign a form legally relinquishing his or her parental rights. A legal parent’s rights may also be involuntarily terminated for a number of reasons, including:
- Conviction for abuse, neglect, abandonment, or cruelty to a child.
- Failure to comply with Division of Child Protection and Permanency recommendations.
- When a court determines that termination is in the best interest of the child.
Once a legal parent’s rights have been voluntarily or involuntarily terminated, a stepparent may file for adoption, a fairly simple process that includes a criminal and child abuse background check and a trip to court for an adoption hearing. After the adoption hearing, if the stepparent is named the legal parent of the child, they are granted all the rights and responsibilities that entails, including the ability to retain custody of the child if something happens to the other legal parent.
When you are faced with an important life decision regarding a key family relationship, the advice and assistance of an experienced family law attorney often prove crucial to your understanding of the issues involved and your satisfaction with the ultimate outcome of your family law matter. Contact us today for your free consultation.