Thursday, February 12, 2009

Legal Facts for Stepfamilies

[NOTE: this is a reprint of an article I wrote a few years ago - but this issue seems to be popping up again, so here's a refresher course. STEPcoach]

Stepparents face such staggering challenges within our homes, that we really don't need extra pressures piled on us by - of all folks - the government. But we get it anyway.

On top of child support and alimony burdens, hostile or sullen stepkids, hostile or sullen ex-spouses, and building a husband-wife relationship in the midst of an earthquake, we are also faced with legal confusion.

As we learned at a recent stepparenting conference in New Orleans, it seems that, despite our responsibilities for our stepkids, there is no legal relationship between stepparents and stepchildren. The legal world - courts, schools, and even medical facilities - considers stepparents as nothing more than strangers who pick up the kids every day and drop them off with their "real" parents. Our lack of any legal relationship with our stepchild means that, unless we have written authority, we can't authorize emergency medical care, have access to school records, or sign important documents.

We faced this in our own stepfamily a few years ago when I tried to pick up my stepdaughter from her junior high school to take her to the doctor. Since Jennifer's last name was different than mine, the school authorities told me I'd have to bring a note from her mother saying it was alright for me to get her.

OK, I understand (and even grudgingly commend) the caution of the school, but it quite frankly made me feel foolish to have to drive across two towns to get a note from Mommy at work, drive back to the school, and wait while the principal confirmed that the note was real. Naturally, we were late for the doctor's appointment, Jennifer missed the rest of the day at school, and I missed an entire afternoon's work.

The courts seem to be reluctant to recognize the relationship - albeit a common law, household relationship - of stepparent to stepchild as caregiver, provider, and responsible party. Not to say stepparents don't already have financial responsibility for stepchildren — but that they don't have any rights.

We learned quickly that if I were to play any part in raising my stepdaughter, we would have to announce that intention. My wife signed and had notarized notes authorizing me to pick up or drop off Jennifer, to call for emergency medical care, and to handle her records. Together we delivered these notes to the schools, doctor's office, and our church, and I kept a set with me for hospital emergencies.

This lack of a clear legal relationship makes our role as stepparent unclear. There is a loss of status which may lead some stepparents to be less involved. Here I am, trying to step into the dad position in the household, and everyone says I'm a nobody!

Raising someone else's children is tough enough without the government tying our hands legally. Protect yourself and your stepkids - have letters of authority drawn up and deliver them to the necessary offices. Your stepchild's safety may depend on it.

[SOURCE: http://www.stepcarefully.com/legalnotes.html]

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