According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009 at least 5.3 million children in the United States lived with one biological parent and one stepparent. As the makeup of the family within households evolves, stepparents are becoming more common and may begin to wonder what their legal obligations are to their stepchildren. While there are several legal boundaries that a stepparent may face, case law on the role of stepparents continues to adapt.
When a stepchild lives with both a biological parent and a stepparent, discipline is on the biological parent’s shoulders. If a biological parent is not present when the need for discipline arises, a stepparent may feel the need to step in to discipline the stepchild. The legal system often recognizes the need for a stepparent to act in place of a biological parent. The legal term for this relationship is "in loco parentis," which is defined to be “when a person [or legal entity] undertakes the care and control of another [person of legal incapacity] in the absence of such supervision by the latter’s natural parents and in the absence of formal legal approval.” Using this distinction, most stepparents who have established a bond with their stepchild and have taken responsibility to feed, clothe, support and nurture a child are acting as in loco parentis and can discipline a child with reasonable needs. Many custody agreements and parenting plans set forth the reasonable discipline a third party or stepparent is able to enforce. If your parenting plan or custody arrangement does not have this provision, consider consulting an attorney to have it added.
If a stepparent assists in supporting a household through income or other means of support, the question may arise as to the legal obligation to support a stepchild. Most states do not obligate a stepparent to directly support a stepchild or allow a stepparent's income to influence the amount of child support received or given by a biological parent. If a stepparent takes on the role of an in loco parentis, financial support of a stepchild is expected at least when the child is under the stepparent's care, though not necessarily when the child is with the biological parent to whom the stepparent is not married.
Right To Information
A stepparent typically has no legal right to private information regarding the stepchild. Doctors, nurses, teachers and other authority figures are not under a legal obligation to provide information directly to a stepparent. One way to mitigate this legal boundary is to have a power of attorney signed by both biological parents giving the stepparent the right to access private information and make medical decisions for the child. This document is especially important if the stepparent is tasked with enrolling a child in school or handling medical appointments.
In the event that the biological parent and stepparent divorce, the stepparent is typically released from all legal and other responsibilities of the stepchild. A stepparent who no longer resides with the stepchild or possess any type of relationship with the said child has terminated the in loco parentis status and is no longer under any legal obligation to the child.