“Ron, I’m a stepparent. And I’ve heard that if my wife dies I won’t have any legal rights to my stepchildren.”

He’s right.

“That’s hard enough to comprehend, but I’m wondering how that affects me now? If I don’t have any legal rights to my stepkids, am I obligated to discipline them, to pay for college, or to make long-term financial provision for them?”

Power and responsibility

It may sound a bit uncaring, but I think Todd is asking a reasonable question. Stepparents get a lot of double messages in our culture, so it’s easy to see why Todd is confused. On one hand they are expected to be responsible parent figures to children, and yet there’s no legal permanence to their relationship. They are called upon to be good role models and conduits to faith, but they can’t even sign a youth group retreat permission form. And stepparents are expected to share their financial resources with stepchildren, but their life investment in the child is not protected under the law.

How distorted is that?

But the answer to Todd’s dilemma is not legal, it’s relational. Love would sacrifice financially and not worry about a “return on investment”; love would commit time and energy to their care and nurturance even with the awareness that other extended family members would push them out of the family picture should the biological parent die; and love would seek to prepare the children to be responsible adults through teaching, instruction, and discipline even though the law limits a stepparent’s parental rights.

Love never fails.

I should add, however, that state law does make accommodation for the basic functions that stepparents fulfill. De facto parent status, simply obtained by willingly taking on the role of parent by sharing residence and providing caretaking responsibilities, affords stepparents the ability to discipline stepchildren. It also makes you accountable to parental laws, such as physical and sexual abuse prohibitions.

Essentially, this allows you to function as parent in day-to-day terms, though you still have no legal authority over the children. This, too, has clear limits. Legally, de facto parent status and any financial support offered to a stepchild ends with the cessation of the marriage, whether by death or divorce.

After divorce, for example, a stepparent who wishes to continue a relationship with stepchildren will have to receive permission from the biological parent. A strong relationship doesn’t afford you any parental rights to the child.

In the case of the death of a biological parent, stepchildren are no longer eligible for benefits, and the stepparent isn’t legally obligated to share any inheritance money. Therefore, provision for children and the spouse after death requires advanced estate planning or legal adoption that clearly grants the stepparent rights and responsibilities even after the marriage has ended.

So what do you do in light of these realities? There are many in the U.S. who have proposed changes to family law and policy that would legally recognize stepparents and provide uniform direction to current legal ambiguities. Examples include allowing children to have three legal parents (two biological and one residential stepparent) or formalizing the de facto parent role. But honestly, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for this to happen.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do.

First, learn as much as you can about stepfamily legal matters and finances. My book The Smart Stepfamily addresses this and much more.

Second, don’t leave your caretaking desires for children and financial intentions to chance. Make clear your intentions in a will and assuming children are old enough, share your intentions with them so there are no surprises should you die.

Third, focus on building a smart and strong stepfamily. At the end of the day, relational equity is worth more than financial equity or legal governances because it fosters trust from children, motivates the child’s heart to grant you influence, and invites grace from extended family.

Adapted from The Smart Stepfamily Revised & Expanded Edition (2014) by Ron L. Deal, Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used with permission. All rights to this material are reserved.