Is a stepparent a legal guardian?

legal guardian and child

A “stepparent,” that is, a stepfather or stepmother, is the person who marries a child’s biological parent after the death or divorce of the other parent. They apparently do not have a biological relationship to the child. They are disregarded as parents under the law, despite being referred to as “step parents.” The next question is: Is a stepparent a legal guardian to a step child.

This question arises because a stepparent becomes a significant figure in a child’s life. Also, the stepparent gets involved in the child’s upbringing. Despite this, a stepparent cannot make key decisions for the child even to decide simple issues like his healthcare, education, travel plans, etc. These present a need for a stepparent to acquire some level of parental responsibility for the stepchild.

Does a step parent has parental responsibility?

No. The child’s biological parent retains parental responsibility. The role of a stepparent to a child is that of a caregiver, like a nanny. A stepparent does not obtain parental responsibility even by marrying the child’s biological parent. Stepparents can obtain parental responsibility for their stepchild in these ways:

  1.  If the stepparent marries the child’s parent who has parental responsibility, the stepparent can enter into a parental responsibility agreement with the child’s parents who already have parental responsibility. To enter into a parental responsibility agreement, you must receive the written consent of every person who has parental responsibility for the child. Otherwise, the other parent may object and you have to recourse to court.
  1. A stepparent can make an application to the court for the judge to make an order that they have parental responsibility for the stepchild. Under this procedure, courts insist that you give notice to those who already have parental responsibility for the child. The other parent can oppose or allow such an application. The court then grants or refuses the application, considering the best interest of the child.
  2. If a stepparent marries the parent of the child, they can jointly apply for the adoption of the stepchild.
  3.  If the court appoints a stepparent as the child’s legal guardian.

The parents and the stepparent share parental responsibilities in any of the aforementioned procedures (1, 2, and 4). The absent biological parent still bears parental responsibility as well.

A stepparent is not automatically a legal guardian of their stepchildren. The rights to a child remain with both natural parents after a judicial separation or divorce. The conditions of the court’s ruling govern the parents’ rights to the child following a divorce proceeding. One biological parent can have primary or exclusive parental responsibility and custody of a child, while the other does not.

A stepparent can only become a legal guardian of a stepchild by receiving court-ordered guardianship of a stepchild. Traditionally, given the absence of a biological link, step-parents could not apply to be appointed as guardians of their step-children. The only extreme circumstance in which a stepparent can obtain legal guardianship is if one or both of their natural parents are unable or unwilling to care for the child.

Another way is for a step parent is to marry the child’s biological parent, and then formally adopt the child jointly with the spouse.

Guardianship gives you the same rights over the child as a natural parent would have. It ensures that the responsibilities of the legal guardian co-exist with the rights and responsibilities of the parents.

The appointment of a legal guardian does not sever the legal relationships between children and their biological parents. The biological parents will continue to take charge of all legal and financial matters involving their children even if a stepparent is designated as the stepchild’s legal guardian.

When both parents are healthy and actively involved in their children’s upbringing, courts frequently hesitate to grant guardianship. The majority of the time, a court may grant such application where the prospective stepparent proves that one or both of the parents are either unable or unwilling to provide for their children.

Guardianship relationships typically last until a child reaches the legal age of majority or when a court determines that the guardianship is no longer necessary or in the best interests of the child.

Courts are more willing to grant temporary guardianship to a stepparent. Courts often grant it in response to emergency situations. These situations include when a legal parent must undergo emergency medical care or travel outside of the country. The guardianship terminates when the underlying issues, such as the absence or disability of a biological parent, have been resolved.


Unlike legal guardianship, which is a temporary arrangement, adoption is permanent. A stepparent can adopt a stepchild and assume full and all parental responsibility over the step child. Adoption extinguishes all legal rights of the other biological parent.

Adoption of a stepchild creates permanent legal ties between stepparents and children. It confers all the rights and responsibilities of a biological parent on the stepparent. In turn, the child will have the same rights as any child born to the step parents, including succession rights.

If the noncustodial parent is either absent from, unable to, or unwilling to participate in their child’s upbringing, the custodial parent and stepparent may resort to stepparent adoption. But where the opposite is true, that is, the non-custodial parent is both willing and able to take care of the child’s upbringing, courts hasten to grant adoption of a child. A biological parent with or without custodial status over the child can object to the adoption process and may mostly likely succeed.

Either course a step parent pursues, it may be important to consider the age and best interest of a child. When a child reaches a particular age, courts in most states mandate that his consent is obtained before adoption or stepparental guardianship of the child is considered. The applicable age is specified by the child’s or adoption laws in the respective states as the case may.

Procedure for appointment of a legal guardian

Each state has its forms and procedure for obtaining legal guardianship. It is therefore you consult an attorney to put you through. It generally involves:

  • The first step is to file a Petition of Guardianship at the clerk’s office at your local courthouse.
  • You serve a copy of the court process on each interested party. You must give at least 15 days notice before the hearing to all parties, including the stepchild’s other parent.
  • Officers of the court will often serve the papers . You or the officer serving the papers must swear to a proof of service form. The interested parties have a right to attend the hearing or to submit a Consent and Waiver of Notice form if they don’t want to dispute the guardianship and don’t want to attend.
  • The court will appoint an investigator to interview you about why you want to become your stepchild’s guardian. They may also speak to your partner or investigate your home for the report they will submit to the judge.
  • At the guardianship hearing itself, the judge will speak to the child if the child is of age, and talk to all interested parties about your relationship with the child.
  •  The court will deliver a ruling on whether to grant you legal guardianship.

With the rise of second and even third marriages, many people will find themselves part of a blended family. A stepparent who finds a deep need to seek parental responsibilities over a step child should take legal steps to actualize it. It provides support and stability in the life of the child.

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