In the United States, many couples become blended families after they marry. Also known as stepfamilies, blended families consist of children that one or both spouses bring into the current marriage from a previous relationship. During the marriage, the stepparents take care of their stepchildren in the marital home as if they were the same as their biological children. The stepparents provide food, shelter and clothing as well as care, comfort and guidance. Blended families may be so cohesive that other people cannot tell that the families include stepparents and stepchildren.
However, all marriages do not last forever. Sometimes, one or both spouses decide to divorce. A divorce may have more issues in a stepfamily than a divorce involving a couple with no children or only their legal children. In Oregon, a divorce terminates a marriage. In the divorce process, the divorcing spouses or the court must resolve property distribution, spousal support, child custody, parenting time and child support.
Under state law, each parent has an equal right to the custody of their children. They also have legal responsibilities to their children’s care, custody and control, and financial contribution. When both spouses are the parents of the children at issue, it is clear that both parents must contribute to the upbringing of the children. When one spouse is the stepparent of the children at issue, child custody may not be as clear cut.
In Oregon, legal proceedings concerning child custody favor the legal parent because the law presumes that the legal parent acts in the child’s best interest. A legal parent is a person, biological or nonbiological, that state law states has the legal right to the care, custody, control and decision making for a child. A legal parent can be a biological parent, adoptive parent, another relative or even a stepparent.
A stepparent may have rights to their stepchildren once they and their spouse file for divorce. However, under Oregon’s psychological parent doctrine, a stepparent may retain legal rights to their stepchildren if they can establish a parent-child relationship. To prove the parent-child relationship, the stepparent must show that within at least six months before the divorce was filed, they:
- Had physical custody of the child or child resided in the same household;
- Provided food, shelter, necessaries, care, education and clothing;
- Had day-to-day interactions;
- Gave companionship; and
- Fulfilled the child’s psychological needs.
A stepparent may also become a legal parent if they adopt their stepchildren. If the stepchild is fourteen years old or older, the stepparent must receive consent from the child for the adoption.
Once a stepparent establishes that a parent-child relationship exists with the stepchildren, they may seek custody in the same manner as a legal parent. The legal parent and the stepparent may seek a joint, sole or split custody arrangement. The court may determine that it is in the child’s best interest to be in the stepparent’s physical custody. Then, the stepparent may be awarded sole physical and legal custody of the stepchild.