A family consists of people related by blood, marriage and adoption. It also can include individuals so closely connected that they feel like family. Some families in the United States do not contain traditional family members.
For decades, the conventional family was married parents and children of the marriage. In 2020, more than 1.6 million marriages occurred in the United States. However, over 630,00 divorces happened in the same year. Oregon’s Center for Health Statistics reports that close to 22,000 marriages happened in 2020 with the number of divorces nearly 50 percent of the amount. Divorce allows people to remarry and blend their families, creating a household of stepparents, stepchildren, and stepsiblings.
A stepfamily is a family with a married couple who brings their children from a former relationship. If the previous relationship ended in a breakup, divorce or death of the stepchild’s parent, the stepparent might assume the role of an additional or only other parental figure.
A stepparent can form a close relationship with a stepchild. During the marriage to the legal parent, a stepparent can develop a close relationship with the stepchild. Other people may even assume that the stepparent and stepchild are biologically related.
When the legal parent and stepparent decide to divorce, the court presumes custody of the stepchild goes to a legal parent.
A legal parent of a child means:
- a person who gives birth to the child
- biological mother or father
- adoptive mother or father
- voluntary acknowledgment of paternity
- filiation proceedings
- paternity established by administrative order
During the divorce, the stepparent can ask the court for custody of the stepchild. When the legal parent and stepparent do not have a pending case, the stepparent can file a petition with the court to begin a child custody suit. However, stepparents have no automatic child custody rights unless they legally adopt their stepchildren.
Under Oregon law, a stepparent with emotional ties to a stepchild may have custody rights if they have a child-parent relationship. Within the previous six months before filing for custody, the relationship must meet the following requirements:
- The person must have physical custody of the child, live in the same household with the child, or provide the necessary care, food, shelter, education or discipline; and
- The relationship between the person and the child occurs on a day-to-day basis. It includes mutual interaction and companionship that meet a child’s physical necessities and fills the role of a parent.
State law presumes that the legal parent has the child’s best interest. Under the presumption, the court grants custody to the legal parent. However, the stepparent can disprove the presumption by showing that the legal parent is not acting in the best interest of the stepchild.
After the stepparent presents evidence against the legal parent, the court considers factors such as:
- Whether the legal parent cannot or choose not to care adequately for the child;
- The stepparent currently or recently was the child’s primary caretaker;
- Emotional, physical, and psychological harm can happen to the child if the court denies custody to the stepparent;
- The legal parent established, supported, and consented to the stepparent and child’s relationship; or
- The legal parent unreasonably prevented or limited contact between the child and the stepparent.
A stepparent that adopts his stepchild becomes a legal parent, which gives him child custody rights in a divorce proceeding or custody case. Adoption is a legal process that replaces a child’s legal parent with someone else. An adoptive parent gains all the rights and obligations as if the child was born to them. The natural parents lose their legal relationship with the child. When a stepparent adopts the spouse’s child, the spouse continues as the child’s legal parent.
After the adoption, the stepparent and spouse have equal rights and responsibilities to the child. They must provide support, guidance, custody and control. As the child’s legal parents, both can seek custody of the child. The judge can order a joint or sole child custody arrangement.
In Oregon, both parents must agree to joint custody. If they disagree, the court must order sole custody and determine which party is the custodial parent. The court decides custody based on the safety and well-being of the child. The judge must consider the following factors:
- The child’s emotional bond with other family members;
- The parent’s interest and attitude regarding the child;
- Each parent’s desire to continue the existing relationship with the child;
- The preference to give custody to the child’s primary caregiver, if the court deems the person is fit; and
- Each parent’s willingness and ability to assist, support, and encourage a continuing close relationship between the child and the other parent
If the court grants sole custody to the stepparent, they may also receive child support from the noncustodial parent.
The stepparent’s child custody rights also extend to modifying the custody order. Whether stepparents establish rights as a child-parent relationship or by adopting the stepchild, the court may grant custody to the other parent. Later, the stepparent can seek custody by filing a motion to modify the court order.
The stepparent must explain how changing the custody judgment is in the child’s best interest. He also has to show that a significant change in circumstance makes it necessary and appropriate to award custody to the stepparent.