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Do Stepparents Have Visitation or Legal Rights?

Being a stepparent is a tough job. You have to integrate yourself into an established family, doing your best to act as a responsible parent without stepping on the toes of the child’s biological parent. Children will have a unique relationship with each biological parent and their stepparent, the nature of which they will likely not be conscious, while the stepparent is expected to both understand and appropriately handle the complex interrelationships. It can sometimes feel like an impossible task, but there’s nothing more rewarding than being the parent who successfully “steps up.” If you have taken on the role of a stepparent, however, and you wind up separated from your stepchild’s biological parent, do you retain any rights? Are you left without recourse despite the efforts you’ve made to be a proper parent? Continue reading to learn about stepparent rights in New Jersey, and call an experienced Englewood child custody and parental rights attorney for help with a New Jersey family law matter.

New Jersey Law Does Not Automatically Grant Stepparents Visitation Rights

New Jersey family law primarily concerns itself with biological parents. When biological parents divorce, the court will analyze certain factors to determine a custody arrangement based on the best interests of the child. Third parties, meaning anyone who does not have a biological relationship with the child, do not have a right by default to request visitation or custody.

Under certain circumstances, a grandparent or sibling can request visitation by demonstrating that visitation would be in the best interests of the child at issue. Accordingly, if the stepparent has a child that is the biological sibling of their stepchild, then the sibling can request visitation. They can obtain visitation rights by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that visitation would be in the best interests of the stepchild.

Psychological Parents and Third-Party Custody

Under certain limited circumstances, third parties can request visitation or custody rights. The analysis for obtaining visitation differs from the standard “best interests of the child” test. The putative parent will need to make a stronger showing by first demonstrating that they are a “psychological parent” to the child, and only then will the court look to the best interests of the child to resolve the custody/visitation dispute.

A New Jersey appellate court case titled K.A.F. v. D.L.M. illustrates how New Jersey courts evaluate stepparent visitation or custody requests by stepparents. The case involved a same-sex stepparent who had raised their child with their registered domestic partner from ages one to eight and developed a status as a psychological parent to the child. When the couple split, the child’s biological parent tried to prevent the stepparent from interacting with the child. The stepparent filed a complaint requesting custody and visitation rights. After the trial court dismissed the complaint, the appellate court determined that the stepparent had the right to seek custody or visitation.

According to the court, any party who lives with and cares for a child in a parental role for a significant period of time, developing a parent-child relationship with the encouragement of at least one of the child’s legal parents, should be allowed to request custody or visitation. Once psychological parentage is established, the “question of what relief is warranted entails consideration of the best interests of the child.” As explained by the court, the psychological parent doctrine is meant to protect a child from “serious psychological harm” that would occur should the parent-child relationship be terminated.


The best way for a stepparent to obtain legal rights to custody and/or visitation is to adopt the child. If a stepparent adopts the child, the stepparent becomes that child’s legal parent, regardless of their biological relationship. Upon divorce or other custody dispute, the adoptive parent has the same legal rights as any other parent. The adoptive parent can request custody or visitation, and they maintain rights concerning medical decisions and other issues. Adoptive parents are also subject to child support requirements.

Dedicated Advice and Assistance for New Jersey Parental Rights Matters

If you’re considering divorce in New Jersey or dealing with child support, child custody, property division, or other family law issues, contact the Englewood family law attorneys Herbert & Weiss at (201) 500-2151.