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Being a Step-Parent: Know Your Rights, Consider Your Responsibilities

Being a step-parent is challenging but can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Children thrive when they are nurtured by a loving, empathetic, and dependable adult they can trust. The child–step–parent relationship can develop into a lifelong bond that is healthy and fulfilling for both child and step-parent.

There are some important things to keep in mind, especially if you are entering a new family while your new partner is in the middle of a custody dispute. Remember that, if your new partner has a lawyer, the lawyer is your partner’s lawyer, not yours.

Courts might frown on being introduced to children before they are prepared. Remember that the children are suffering a sense of loss and it is a delicate situation. Avoid asking the children to call you “mom” or “dad”. Stay in the background if the dispute is high conflict. You do not want the court to think you are overstepping any boundaries. This can be challenging if the other parent is not acting in the children’s best interest, but remember the court will place a high value on maintaining or repairing the children’s relationship with both parents. Being a step-parent is a difficult and sometimes thankless job, especially at first, but you will support your partner best by approaching their child custody dispute with caution

Your income will not be used to determine child support, but it could be relevant to other financial concerns. Be prepared to turn over financial information. Being cooperative in this respect is another way you can support your new partner.

Your rights will be determined primarily by the Parenting Plan. Your time with the children will depend on the time your partner receives in the parenting plan. Things like access to school records, your appearance at parent-teacher conferences, your attendance at school events, etc could depend on the parenting plan. You cannot be ordered to do anything by the court, because you are not a party to the case. However, your spouse may be ordered to do their best to control certain things. Again, being a step-parent is a hard job and you will do best by being cooperative.

If you have developed a bond with the children over time, you could bring “de facto parentage case” to establish rights. The de facto parentage law is fairly new, being passed in Washington in 2018. If your spouse or partner passes away, or if you split up from your new partner, and you developed a parent-like relationship with the children, you should consider filing a de facto parentage case. The court will consider the following and award de facto parentage if you can prove that it is more likely than not that:

  • You resided with the child as a regular member of the child's household for a significant period;

  • You engaged in consistent caretaking of the child;

  • You undertook full and permanent responsibilities of a parent of the child without expectation of financial compensation;

  • You held out the child as the individual's child;

  • You established a bonded and dependent relationship with the child which is parental in nature;

  • Another parent of the child fostered or supported the relationship; and

  • Continuing the relationship between you and the child is in the child's best interests.

Feel free to contact our office at 206-703-0764 to connect with a trusted member of our team regarding your rights as a step-parent in a joint custody arrangement.

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