How do step-parent rights in joint custody work in Texas?

Girl with stepmom.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 2.4 million stepchildren under the age of 18 lived in the more than 73 million U.S. households with children in 2021. Those millions of stepchildren live with millions of stepparents and step-siblings, and those step-relationships can be challenging. Everyone—biological and stepparents—has an opinion about family dynamics and discipline in blended families. The big question is: What legal rights does a step-parent have in Texas?

Our family law lawyers in Fort Worth TX frequently get questions about step-parent rights in joint custody cases. Many parents come to our office with their new spouse—the step-parent—who strongly voices their concerns and wants to discuss their expectations for the step-parent’s role in custody battle negotiations. They believe they have rights as a stepparent and should be heard—but what stepparent rights do they actually have?

If you’re a stepparent who is wondering, as a stepparent do I have rights in Texas? The answer here in the Lone Star State is generally, NO. This is especially true if both biological parents are playing a role in the upbringing of your stepchild. When it comes to the rights of a step-parent vs biological parent, it is the biological parent whose wishes matter and would actually be enforceable in family court, as long as those wishes coincide with the child custody arrangements and parental rights and duties dictated in the child custody orders.

Stepparents play a vital role in our society but pushy stepparents should watch their step

While I applaud the love, nurturing and day-to-day care genuinely concerned stepparents provide stepchildren in this country, sometimes they go too far. As a family law attorney, I’ve seen many stepparents overstep the boundaries when it comes to weighing in on how co-parenting should be handled when they should keep quiet and let the biological parent take the lead.

In most cases, the family courts don’t really care what stepparents have to say because step-parent rights in joint custody generally don’t exist. Even worse, overly pushy stepparents can even undermine the co-parenting of the biological parents and create a situation that is not in the best interest of the child.

Some pushy stepparents also overstep by insisting their stepchild refer to them as mom or dad. If the biological mom or dad is still living, and this is a bone of contention for them (which is often the case), that parent could ask the court to intervene. In these situations, the courts may order the parents to direct their child not to call anyone mom or dad other than their biological parents.

To be completely honest, I don’t like representing clients with overbearing stepparent spouses and will decline the opportunity to represent a client based on that fact alone. If you’re a stepparent who has an opinion about your stepchild, that opinion should generally be voiced during conversations between you and your spouse.

Even if you don’t have step-parent rights, you do have an important role to play

Now that you know the answer to the question do step-parents have rights in Texas is generally NO, what role can you play in your stepchild’s life? As someone who grew up with divorced parents and has lived the life of a stepchild myself, I can say from experience that having more than two parents isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if all parents—biological and step—are focused on loving and doing what is in the best interest of the child.

That being said, I can also tell you from my experience as a divorce attorney that being a stepparent can be very challenging, especially if you and your spouse don’t get along well with the other biological parent. While stepparent rights in joint custody situations are generally nil in Texas, doing your best to be amicable and respectful to your stepchild’s biological parent is one of the best things you can do for your stepchild.

Take the high road and keep things simple

Being nice to someone who treats you and your spouse horribly isn’t easy but extending an olive branch can help ease the tension in co-parenting situations involving stepchildren. Keep things simple. Simply, say to the biological parent, “If there’s anything I can ever do to help, please let me know.” Unless they ask for your opinion, don’t offer it (and even then, be careful).

It’s also important to be respectful of your spouse’s ex and their role as your child’s mom or dad. For example, if you’re all attending your stepchild’s piano recital, step aside and let the other parent shine. Don’t try to be the center of attention, this is not the time or place to reach for the spotlight. The child comes first of course but trying to one-up his or her biological parent should never be part of your game plan.

If the shoe were on the other foot, how would you feel? The Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would like them to do to you,” is a rule you should try really hard to follow when co-parenting stepkids.

Keep in mind, if your spouse’s ex does do something egregious involving the child, isn’t abiding by custody orders, or refuses to pay court-ordered child support, your spouse (not you) does have legal options. It’s not a matter of what legal rights step-parents have, it’s always going to come down to what legal rights do the biological parents have when things go sideways in a co-parenting situation.

What are step-parent’s rights after the death of a spouse?

Many stepparents play an integral role in their stepchildren’s lives, and it isn’t unusual for a stepparent to serve as the primary caretaker for a stepchild, while the biological parent works full-time as the primary breadwinner. So, what rights does a step-parent have if their spouse, who is a biological parent, dies?

If the other biological parent shares custody of the child and is still living upon the stepparent’s spouse’s death, serious consideration will be given by the court to grant the surviving parent sole managing conservatorship or sole custody of the child. The state of Texas strongly believes that children should maintain a relationship with both biological parents when possible and when it is in the best interest of the child.

That’s not to say a stepparent (or grandparent for that matter), who has been serving as the primary day-to-day caretaker for a child has no options. In fact, a stepparent may have standing to enter into a lawsuit pertaining to custody or visitation of a stepchild under certain circumstances.

According to Texas Family Code § 102.003(11), “a person with whom the child and the child’s guardian, managing conservator, or parent have resided for at least six months ending not more than 90 days preceding the date of the filing of the petition if the child’s guardian, managing conservator, or parent is deceased at the time of the filing of the petition,” may have standing to file a suit affecting the parent-child relationship (SAPCR).

Recent Texas case law could clear the way for more step-parent rights

A recent Texas Supreme Court ruling involving grandparents, In the Interest of H.S., may also give stepparents a glimmer of hope to file a SAPCR, even when one or both biological parents are still alive. The ruling was based on Texas Family Code § 102.003(9), which states, “a person, other than a foster parent, who has had actual care, control, and possession of the child for at least six months ending not more than 90 days preceding the date of the filing of the petition,” may have general standing to file a SAPCR.

In the H.S. case, the Texas Supreme Court overruled an Appeals Court, which had earlier ruled the grandparents did not have standing to file a SAPCR. The Supreme Court’s reversal was based on the fact that the grandparents had continuously engaged in a parent-like role on a day-to-day basis during the statutory time period, and therefore did have standing to pursue a SAPCR under section 102.003(a)(9).

That’s not to say the road to custody and visitation of a stepchild is easy for stepparents. If you believe it is genuinely in the best interest of your stepchild or grandchild for you to have legal custody or visitation of that child, it’s important to speak with a Texas family law attorney who is familiar with legal options for stepparents and grandparents’ rights.

What if I want to adopt my stepchild? Do I have step-parent rights and standing to adopt?

I’ve met many wonderful stepparents who truly love, dote on and provide day-to-day care for their stepchildren. Together with their spouse, one of the two biological parents, they provide a happy, stable home life for their stepkids. These children may even have little if no interaction with the other biological parent. So, does that clear the way for the stepparent to adopt? Not necessarily.

If the other biological parent is still living, the stepparent and spouse would need to take steps to terminate the other biological parent’s parental rights before being able to pursue the adoption of a stepchild and go from being a stepparent to parent. It is NOT easy to terminate parental rights in Texas. As stated earlier, the state of Texas believes both biological parents should play a role in their children’s lives, unless it is not in the best interest of that child.

As the parent (or parents) hoping to adopt, the burden would be on you to prove the other biological parent is unfit or unwilling to parent the child, in order to involuntarily terminate that parent’s parental rights in accordance with Texas Family Code Chapter 161.

If you succeed in terminating the biological parent’s rights, you will also need to go through other hoops before the adoption of your stepchild would be granted. Other steps include the completion of a home study and background check. Prospective adoptive parents in Texas must also be at least 21 years of age, demonstrate they are financially stable and mature, provide references, show proof of marriage or divorce if applicable and attend free training sessions about abused and neglected children.

The state of Texas takes adoption seriously, regardless of the circumstances. If you live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area and have questions about adopting of a stepchild, we welcome you to schedule time to speak with a Texas adoption attorney at our firm.

Have questions about step-parent rights in joint custody or adoption? Contact us

No one ever said being a stepparent is easy. In most cases, being a stepparent has its ups and downs. However, if you put the best interests of the children first, and you and your spouse provide a stable, loving home for those children, it can turn out to be a wonderful experience for everyone involved.

If you live in the Dallas / Fort Worth area and have questions about step parent rights in joint custody and adoption, or step parent rights in general, you can contact the Sisemore Law Firm to schedule a confidential consultation with our firm. We will review your case, answer your questions and explain what options are available to you as a stepparent in Texas.

To schedule your confidential case review, please contact the firm at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.

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