Pursuing Visitation and Custody as a Stepparent
Divorce is a stressful experience, particularly when children are involved. Both parents fear losing out on visitation time or custody, but the matter becomes even more complicated for a stepparent. Stepparents are often involved in the formative years of a child’s life and can be extremely impactful on their positive growth. The stepparent and child may not consider the lack of a biological connection a barrier in their relationship. These strong emotional bonds can be put under undue stress during a divorce, despite the fact that stepparents do have rights to visitation and custody.
If you believe you have a case for custody or visitation with your stepchild, contact DiBella Law Offices, P.C. Our Methuen stepparent rights attorneys can review your case and explain whether or not you are eligible for visitation. If we take you on as a client, we can advocate for your rights through mediation or in a family law court. Call us at (978) 327-5140 to discuss your case.
De-Facto Parents in Massachusetts
Family law courts in Massachusetts will allow stepparent visitation with a child, provided it is deemed to be in the child’s best interest. Stepparents are considered a de facto parent—a person who is not biologically related to the child, but who has continuously provided for the child’s emotional and physical needs. When a stepparent has been involved in raising a child, he or she has certain rights concerning that child after a divorce.
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The Legal Basis for Stepparent Rights
While there is no specific state statute that grants visitation rights to stepparents, case law has laid the groundwork for stepparents to have visitation rights when a marriage with the child’s biological parent is dissolved. One of the cases that set this precedent is ENO v. LMM, 429 Mass. 824 (1999).
The parties in this case were two women in a monogamous relationship for 13 years. The defendant became pregnant through artificial insemination and gave birth to a child. The plaintiff assumed primary financial responsibility for the family, as well as primary care of the child for seven months while the defendant was experiencing medical problems. When the couple separated approximately three years after the child was born, the defendant denied the plaintiff access to the child. However, the court ruled that the plaintiff should be awarded visitation as she had acted as the child’s parent during their time together.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court also adopted a doctrine defining a de facto parent as “…one who has no biological relation to the child, but has participated in the child’s life as a member of the child’s family. The de facto parent resides with the child and, with the consent and encouragement of the legal parent, performs a share of caretaking functions at least as great as the legal parent…”
Based on this case, a stepparent may pursue visitation with a stepchild if he or she can effectively demonstrate to the court that it is the child’s best interest to have the stepparent in his or her life. However, this may be an uphill climb if the stepparent has not already adopted the child and you should discuss your case with a child custody attorney first.
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What Does It Take for a Stepparent to Adopt a Child?
Massachusetts courts are more willing to grant custody and visitation to stepparents who have legally adopted a child. To do so, the child’s non-custodial parent must first surrender his or her parental rights or have them removed by the court. If this is successful, a stepparent can file a petition to adopt a child provided:
- The stepparent’s spouse is the parent of the child;
- The stepparent’s spouse has legal custody of the child; and
- The child has resided primarily with the stepparent and the parent who is the stepparent’s spouse during the previous six months.
This adoption process is generally much easier than standard adoption procedures, as stepparents do not have to go through the foster care system or home visits to support their case. That being said, you will still want to speak to an attorney first to ensure the process is handled properly and all your rights are protected. In addition, if you face difficulties with custody and visitation orders after a divorce, you will want an experienced Boston stepparent rights attorney at your side to advocate for your rights in court.
Why You Need a Family Law Attorney
Obtaining stepparent visitation rights is not a clear-cut process. You will need to be armed with all the evidence you can gather to show the extent of your involvement in the child’s life, from witness statements to family photos to birthday cards. If visitation with your stepchild is vital for you and your stepchild, it is in your best interest to have an experienced Massachusetts family law attorney by your side to assist you through the legal process. Call DiBella Law Offices, P.C. at (978) 327-5140.