Despite how stepparents are portrayed in fairy tales, in real life, they often have excellent relationships with their stepchildren—in some cases, a better relationship than the child has with his or her natural parent, especially if that parent has been absent or uninvolved. A child may spend most of their time living in a household with a stepparent. But what rights does a stepparent have with regard to a stepchild in Utah?
We’ll leave for another time the question of what rights a stepparent has when they divorce their spouse, the natural parent of the step-child. For the moment, let’s think about a stepparent’s rights as an adult in whose home the step-child lives, or spends significant time.
Consider all the day-to-day things a parent might do for a child: sign school permission slips, pick the child up from school, take the child to the doctor, sign the child up for religious education, and simply spend time at home with the child. Stepparents do a lot of these things, too. Often, though, the stepparent’s right to do something for a child—like pick them up from school or daycare—exists because their spouse granted them the right, such as by naming them in school records as a person to whom the school is authorized to release the child.
Although a stepparent may act as a parent—waking up in the night to comfort a frightened child, preparing meals, coaching sports teams, helping with homework, and so on—the reality is that they have few inherent legal rights regarding their stepchild. The child may think of the stepparent as simply a parent, but the Utah courts do not. Stepparents do not have the legal authority to make major decisions regarding the child’s life, such as where they will go to school, what medical treatment they will receive, or what religion they will be raised in.
In fact, under some circumstances, the stepparent may even have limited ability to care for the child unless the natural parent is around. This is due to Utah law establishing guidelines for parent time and what is commonly known as “right of first refusal.”
Utah Code Section 30-3-33(15) states in part that “Parental care shall be presumed to be better care for the child than surrogate care and the court shall encourage the parties to cooperate in allowing the noncustodial parent, if willing and able to transport the children, to provide the child care.”
In other words, if one parent needs someone to watch the child (usually for more than a few hours), the law prefers the child’s other parent over a “surrogate.” Many couples, in their divorce decree, grant the other parent the right of first refusal if they need child care. This can be a win-win in many circumstances: the parent who needs child care gets it from a trustworthy source, and the child and other parent get “bonus time” together.
Sometimes, however, a right of first refusal provision can result in the natural parent insisting on exercising that right to the detriment of the child’s relationship with the stepparent. Unbelievable as it may seem, courts would consider a stepparent a “surrogate” rather than a provider of the preferred “parental care.”
Some parents have the foresight to anticipate that they might remarry, and their attorneys may have the foresight to specify in the divorce decree that a stepparent’s care is considered “parental,” rather than “surrogate.” Otherwise, if the non-custodial parent insists on their right of first refusal, the law might treat a loving stepparent as no more than a babysitter, and a second-rate babysitter, at that.
A stepparent who acts like a parent and feels like a parent may be able to become a parent, with a parent’s full rights, through the process of stepparent adoption. Those who adopt their stepchildren are treated in the eyes of the law as if they are the child’s natural parent. That means if spouses later divorce, the stepparent can seek custody and parent time and may be obligated to pay child support.
Stepparent adoption offers a number of advantages. Creating a legal relationship between stepparent and stepchild can strengthen family ties. If the stepparent and their spouse go on to have more children together, the now-adopted stepchild will be their full sibling. Legal adoption also allows the child to be on the stepparent’s health insurance and to inherit from them under the law. Otherwise, the stepparent would have to create an estate plan specifically naming the stepchild as a beneficiary of their estate. Similarly, an adopted stepchild would be entitled to any government benefits that a legal child of the stepparent would receive.
In order to adopt a stepchild in Utah, a stepparent must:
If the non-custodial parent is unwilling to consent to the adoption, the process becomes much more complicated. He or she must be served with a copy of the Petition to Adopt and be given the opportunity to respond and intervene. It is much more difficult to adopt a stepchild when all parties do not agree to the adoption.
If you have additional questions about stepparents’ rights or adoption in Utah, we invite you to contact Barton Wood to schedule a consultation.