Do Step Parents Have Rights to Child Custody?

When it comes to step parents, one of the major questions is, what are your step parent rights? Step parents often develop strong bonds with their stepchildren and blended families are becoming increasingly common. As a stepparent, you might be wondering about your rights to custody or visitation when faced with divorce or even the loss of your spouse. What rights do step parents have when it comes to their step-children? Do step parents have the right to child custody? Can step parents file for joint custody or adoption? 

Remington & Dixon, PLLC, explains stepparents and child custody rights.

Who has Custody Rights in North Carolina?

Regardless of marital status or relationship with the other parent, any parent has the right to petition for custody. In certain situations, third parties such as grandparents, relatives, or individuals who provided care for the child may also seek visitation or custody rights.

Non-relatives seeking custody, such as step parents, must establish a significant relationship with the child and a strong case to be considered for custody.

Do Step Parents have Custody and Visitation Rights in NC?

The extent of stepparent custody and visitation rights varies significantly from state to state. In North Carolina, unless a stepparent has legally adopted their stepchild, they typically do not retain custody and visitation rights in the event of a divorce from the child’s biological parent.

In select circumstances, North Carolina law permits stepparents to seek custody. This typically occurs when a biological parent has failed to fulfill their parental duties or when the court deems biological parents, grandparents, or other family members unfit. Moreover, the court must determine that granting custody and visitation to the stepparent is in the child’s best interests.

Without formal adoption of the stepchild, stepparents lack the authority to make significant decisions regarding the child’s upbringing, such as education, healthcare, or religious matters. In cases where the stepparent has legally adopted the child, they have full legal rights equivalent to those of a biological parent.

What are my Rights if I Adopted My Step-Child?

Once a step parent has formally adopted their step-child, their legal status is no longer classified as step parent. Following adoption, the step parent becomes a full legal parent with equivalent rights and responsibilities to the child’s other parent. This includes the ability to pursue custody and visitation rights, as well as the obligation to provide financial support for the child.

Step Parent Rights if the Child Has Not Been Adopted

If a step parent has not adopted their step-child, it is rare but, the step parent may have rights to child custody. 

Generally, parents have the constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit. (Called the Peterson presumption in North Carolina, Peterson v. Rogers, 337 N.C. 397 (1994)). So, it is rare that the court finds that a parent has engaged in conduct inconsistent with their parental rights.

In situations where divorced or never-married biological parents have a child custody and visitation order, and they are generally following it, the court will not allow a step parent to assume a parenting role from a willing and participating non-custodial parent. Only when a parent has acted inconsistently with their parental rights can a step parent potentially receive custody. (Seyboth v. Seyboth, 147 N.C. App. 63 (N.C. Ct. App. 2001)).

Courts hesitate to interfere with the right of parents to control the upbringing of their children.

This is why certain conditions must be present for a step parent to have child custody rights in North Carolina.

  • A child must have lived with the stepparent for at least six months in the state of North Carolina
  • Your spouse has both legal and physical custody of the child, and the child has lived primarily with you and your spouse for the preceding six months
  • Your spouse’s ex had legal and physical custody but is either deceased or has been adjudicated
  • The other biological parent or legal parent consents to the adoption or their parental rights have previously been terminated by the Court

A step parent getting child custody is rare, and it highly depends on the circumstances. There may be other conditions the court requires before granting custody rights. Speak with an experienced family law attorney at Remington & Dixon, PLLC, to evaluate your situation and help guide you throughout the legal process.

Is Legal Guardianship the Same as Adopting Your Step Child?

Legal guardianship is not the same as step-child adoption. In certain circumstances Legal Guardianship may be the more viable solution. Courts tend to favor biological parents unless it can be proven that one or both biological parents are unable or unwilling to care for the child.

Despite typically granting in favor of the biological parents or relatives, when it comes to guardianship step parents still have the option to pursue this avenue.

In these cases, as a legal guardian, you may be trusted with the custody of the child until they reach 18. When pursuing legal guardianship of your step-child, this does not relinquish the rights of biological or legal parents. They can still seek to revoke guardianship if deemed necessary.

How a Family Law Attorney Can Help

A family law attorney can help you evaluate your situation and represent your interests in court.

Contact Remington & Dixon, PLLC now.


Are consultations free?

While we offer a free consultation on traffic matters, criminal matters, and most professional license defense cases, we charge a fee for family law consultations to personalize our consultations to your specific needs. To learn about our fee structure, please get in touch.

Where can I get legal advice?

We recommend meeting with an attorney. While there is free legal help available for North Carolina residents from pro bono resources for civil matters, and public defenders for criminal cases, the best way to access tailored advice is to hire a lawyer.

Can I hire you if I’m in another state?

This is done on a case by case basis if you are involved in a family law, criminal, or professional disciplinary matter that involves another jurisdiction.



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