Is a Step Parent a Legal Guardian?

A legal guardian refers to someone who provides care for a child whose biological parents still retain legal and financial control over the child. Stepparents, while fitting the definition of a guardian for their spouse’s children, are not considered legal guardians of their stepchildren. 

A stepparent must establish legal guardianship or file the correct paperwork to receive court-ordered legal guardianship status. They cannot make decisions on their stepchild’s behalf regarding schooling, medical care, or any other essential needs—that power and responsibility are retained by the child’s biological parents. Without legal guardianship, a stepparent has the same legal rights as a babysitter. While they can implement curfews, dole out consequences and chores, and establish order in the home, they cannot make impactful choices on behalf of their stepchildren.

This can cause friction between stepparents and their stepchildren and be a difficult concept for stepparents to accept. Even if a stepparent is more involved in their stepchild’s life than their biological parent, such as providing daily care or forming emotional attachments, they still have no legal rights in the eyes of the court. Depending on the state’s laws, this can create significant issues for the stepparent. A lack of legal rights might make a stepparent feel less compelled to act on their stepchildren’s behalf, especially if the biological parents are not in the picture.

What’s the Difference Between Guardianship and Custody?

While the concepts might seem similar, it’s important to note the differences between guardianship and custody. Guardianship and custody differ significantly when it comes to what decisions can be made over a child and how long each lasts. Someone with legal custody can make decisions for a child, but a guardian is limited to everyday decisions that impact a child’s welfare and care. Also, custody orders are seen as permanent, whereas guardianship is a temporary arrangement. 

Common confusion between guardianship and custody can lead to frustrating situations. While guardians are valuable and can make a huge impact on a child’s life, those without custody mustn’t attempt to make legal decisions governing a child. 

How to Get Legal Guardianship of Your Stepchild

There are several circumstances in which legal guardianship is considered for a stepparent or other figure in a child’s life:

  • Parents are absent or deemed unfit
  • Parents cannot provide care or are imprisoned
  • Parents voluntarily terminate their parental rights
  • Parents lose parental rights or consent to guardianship

Legal guardianship can be granted temporarily or permanently until a minor turns 18 years old. Guardianship is appointed by the biological parents or a court of law, and doesn’t affect the rights of a stepchild’s birth parents. 

Stepparents who wish to establish guardianship must start the process once their spouse files a petition for guardianship in the local family courts. After filing the petition, the court initiates a review which can include:

  • Background checks
  • Court hearings
  • Investigations through appointed guardian ad litem

The court will complete its evaluation, approve the petition based on its findings, and then issue an order establishing legal guardianship. It’s important to remember that legal guardianship always differs from state to state, and you must contact a trusted Family Lawyer to review your case and determine the best path forward. 

Some states allow delegating parental powers to a stepparent via power of attorney. This power of attorney can grant a non-parent the right to make legal decisions for a child over a specific timeframe or specific activities. These can include vacations, doctor’s appointments, and other similar items.

Can a Step Parent Make Legal Decisions for the Child Without Being a Legal Guardian?

Under Washington State Law, via the Uniform Parentage Act, a stepparent can obtain the right to make legal decisions for a child by marrying a spouse who is the child’s only legal parent by adoption, birth, or surrogacy. The stepparent must file an Acknowledgment of Parentage form with your state registrar, or agree to be named on the stepchild’s birth certificate. 

While a stepparent can’t make legal decisions for a child without becoming a legal guardian, a petition can be filed with the court for legal parental rights by proving they are the primary parent. The court will require you file a de facto parentage action, and prove that you live with the child as a regular member of the household for a substantial amount of time. You can also provide evidence of being a consistent caretaker but must prove you were not paid for that caretaking.

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What Are the Rights of the Biological Parent When a Step Parent Becomes a Legal Guardian?

Legal guardianship differs from adoption because it doesn’t sever the legal ties between a child and their biological parents. The biological parents still retain all legal and financial responsibility for the child even when another individual is appointed as a legal guardian.

While legal guardianship has responsibilities that co-exist with the rights & responsibilities of biological parents, the courts might be hesitant to grant guardianship if both parents are fit and involved in their children’s lives. Requests for legal guardianship are typically reserved for when both parents are unable or unwilling to care for their biological children.

Stepparents with guardian rights want to do what’s best for the children in their care, but guardianship relationships differ from adoption. They only last until a child reaches legal adult age, or when a court determines the guardianship is no longer necessary. Guardianship and custody are both based on the best interests of the child, and when it comes to biological parents the courts will typically act in their favor unless compelled otherwise.

Hire A Family Lawyer 

You must understand the importance of all legal aspects of stepparenting, guardianship, and custody before making any important decisions on behalf of the children in your care. If you ever have questions about guardianship, custody, or other matters of family law, the legal experts at Skyview Law are here for you. If you are considering guardianship or adoption, we can help you every step of the way and guide the process in your favor. Contact Skyview Law today for a free consultation. 

Picture of JARROD HAYS

JARROD HAYS

Jarrod Hays is the founder of Skyview Law. He is licensed to practice law in Washington State and the Western District of Washington State Federal Court.

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