Congratulations! You’re officially married, which makes you an official stepmom.
Gone are the days of feeling illegitimate, of being judged by your peers, and of wondering what your place is in the family…
Wouldn’t that be amazing?!
I’ll never forget the time period where my husband and I were just dating but were living together. I was very hands-on with helping him take care of his young daughters, including those sacred bath time, bedtime, and morning routines.
Since my boyfriend had to be at work at 7 am, I’d help him get the girls ready, then he would take them to daycare at about 6:30 am. Yeah… those were early mornings! After they left, I had well over an hour to get myself ready for work, which for me started at 8 am.
I always offered to let the girls sleep in that extra hour and take them to school myself. My boyfriend’s response was simple: “Their mom doesn’t want them riding with you, and she doesn’t want you on the pick-up and drop-off list.”
This was always infuriating to me. I guess I was good enough to take care of them in my home, but not good enough to drive them the two miles down the road to daycare…
The silver lining that my boyfriend presented to me was, “When we get married, things will be different.”
If only I knew now how right and how wrong he was about that…
A Q&A for the New Stepmom
There are broad misconceptions surrounding what legal rights stepparents have.
The short answer is this: We have none.
The real answer is this: It’s complicated.
As a new stepmom, I struggled to understand what I legally could and could not do for my stepdaughters. I had assumed that once we were married, I could do everything that their dad does, no questions asked. Boy, was I wrong…
I think a lot of new stepmoms struggle with this transition as well, which is why I’ve pulled together this Q&A for the New Stepmom.
Q: Am I now legally a parent of my stepchild?
A: No. Marrying a person with kids does not give you any legal rights to the kids. If you want or need to seek legal rights to your stepchild, then you need to seek avenues such as legal guardianship or adoption.
Some states allow parental rights to be transferred to stepparents through a Power of Attorney form (source); however, this is not the case in most states. The legal guardianship process differs in each state, so check your state laws to determine what that process would look like for you.
My Non-Legal Commentary: In most instances, there is no reason for a stepparent to seek legal guardianship. The situations that stepparents need access to can often be addressed in different, simpler ways (outlined in the remaining questions).
Q: Can I do school drop-offs and pick-ups without mom’s permission?
A: You are not legally entitled to pick the child up from school, just as you weren’t before. Check with the child’s school. It is likely you need to be added to an “approved pick-up list,” just how grandpa would need to be added.
Unless the school dictates otherwise, either parent can put whomever they want on the approved list… but the other parent can pull people off, as well. This is handled at the school level.
My Non-Legal Commentary: If mom pulls you off of the list as dad’s wife, a judge would not be happy about it…
Q: Can I sign my stepchild’s homework folder?
A: Yes. This signature does not need to be a custodial parent or a legal guardian. This can be signed by whichever adult is responsible for assisting the child with the evening's homework. This is simply you claiming responsibility that the items have been reviewed, received, etc.
My Non-Legal Commentary: If the mom ever tried to bring it up in court that you signed a homework folder, I can’t imagine a judge caring. To me, that shows your involvement in the child’s life.
Q: Can I go to school events without the mom’s permission?
A: Yes. You have always been allowed to go to school events, even while dating. Either parent can invite whomever they want to attend school events.
Your stepchild’s mom saying she doesn’t want you to attend does not mean that you aren’t allowed to attend. Don’t miss out just because she doesn’t want you there. You don’t have to sit near her, and you don’t have to speak to her.
My Non-Legal Commentary: If you show up and the mom causes a scene, that is a poor reflection of her character, not of yours (provided you don’t participate in the disruption).
Q: Can I have my stepdaughter alone at our house without her father present?
A: Unless it’s specifically stated in the custody agreement that you cannot, then yes. Some custody agreements have a "first right of refusal" clause, stating that if Parent A is [away, working, etc.] for more than x hours on his parenting time, then Parent B has to be offered that time with the child before Parent A can outsource the caregiving.
Legally, you are in the same position now as you were when you were just dating your husband. You are not legally a parent; however, both parents are permitted to let whomever they want to watch the child during their parenting time (again, as long as external care is not outlined in the custody agreement).
My Non-Legal Commentary: This is pretty cut-and-dry. Unless it’s in the custody agreement, the mom’s bark has no teeth to it… so don’t sweat it!
Q: What do I do if I’m alone with my stepchildren, and their mom shows up demanding they leave with her?
A: This is very situational. If it is truly dad’s parenting time (see previous question), and if upon arrival she is in a clear state of mind, explain to her that it is dad’s parenting time, and he designated you to keep the child at this time.
You have to consider the child’s safety based on her response. If she’s at your door belligerent, keep the child. If she’s angry, but in a sound state of mind, you may consider turning over the child to her, then letting your partner speak to her, or file contempt of the court order charges, later.
My Non-Legal Commentary: You need to think about how this incident may stay with the child long-term. You may not want to have her call the police, and cause a big traumatic scene at your house if there’s no safety concern. This is a tough one where you need to quickly weigh your pros and cons.
Q: Can I take my stepchild to doctor’s appointments?
A: Yes, but some things need to be done first. In order to be given access to medical records, you need to be added to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) form (source). Also, it’s up to the doctor’s office to use their discretion when releasing the records of minors.
In the past, I have heard of stepparents having to provide custody agreements showing joint-legal custody, paired with marriage records in addition to being on the HIPPA form.
The real loophole here is that if you carry your stepchild on your health insurance, but then disclose that you’re a stepparent, you still may have to go through all of the above processes.
My Non-Legal Commentary: If you have to take your stepchild to the doctor, come prepared, and be patient.
Q: Can I access my stepchild’s educational records?
A: Whereas HIPPA oversees the privacy of medical records, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) oversees the privacy of educational records. The answer to this question depends on the age and level of your child.
For children enrolled in primary or secondary school (K-12), even if the child has turned 18, stepparents can be considered caregivers under FERPA and thus, be allowed access to educational records (source).
For children enrolled in post-secondary education (college), even if still a minor, this child is in control of the educational record, and may allow access to each individual, parents included (source). Each college handles this differently, and there are several caveats to FERPA in higher education.
My Non-Legal Commentary: If your stepchild is in K-12 education, make sure you get added to both the school and the teacher’s email distribution lists, and make sure your spouse gets a parent portal account set up, if applicable.
Q: Can I sign liability waivers for my stepchild?
A: No. Liability waivers (such as those you receive if you go to a jump park, etc.) require a parent/legal guardian signature.
My Non-Legal Commentary: The liability waivers are to protect the company, not the child. So, it wouldn’t be an issue if you signed, unless either parent tried to take legal action on the company. Your signature would likely not hold up in court.
Now that you’re married, not much has changed legally; however, you now have the confidence to educate yourself on what you can and cannot do.
Gone are the days of your stepchild’s mom dictating the rules! Now, you can use research-based knowledge to make sound decisions with your husband.
Remember: your legal relationship to the children in no way impacts the relationship you will build with them.
When I reflect on my childhood—which was messy—I don’t think about who was my legal guardian at what time… I think about the impact each adult had on my life. I think about who made me feel confident and loved, and who did not.
We are just one piece of the puzzle as stepparents, but it takes a village to raise a child. Move forward confidently in your marriage knowing that you are a critical piece of the puzzle.
Make the child feel loved. The rest will fall into place.