Washington Appeals Court Rules in Favor of Stepparent Rights
In Washington, divorcing parents can ask for custody of their children as long as they are fit. Historically, spouses who are not the biological parent have been required to file a petition for nonparental custody no matter how much they seem like an actual parent. A Washington Court of Appeals ruling, however, brings stepparents closer to achieving the same status of biological parents.
Stepparents Can be De Facto Parents
The court decided that a former stepfather will get the opportunity to argue he is a de facto parent of a child whose biological father passed away. De facto status, which would allow the stepfather to gain custody of the child as the equivalent of a biological parent, is available only if the child does not have two existing, fit parents. Before, it was unclear whether stepparents could be de facto parents, which requires proof that:
- The natural or legal parent consented to and fostered the parent-like relationship.
- The petitioner and the child lived together in the same household.
- The petitioner assumed obligations of parenthood without expectation of financial compensation.
- The petitioner has been in a parental role for a length of time sufficient to have established with the child a bonded, dependent relationship that is parental in nature.
According to the court, the stepfather provided significant emotional support to the mother and was present at the child's birth; he even cut the child's umbilical cord. He was allowed visitation after the divorce and stayed actively involved in his life.
De Facto Status Not Always Available
When a child has two living, fit parents, former stepparents cannot obtain de facto parent status, the court ruled. As was the case before the appeals court ruling, they will be required to file for nonparental custody. This is a burdensome process requiring either that the parents are unfit or that living with the parents would detrimentally affect the child's growth and development. Nonparent custody also must be shown to be in the child's best interests.
Stepparents or former stepparents have the option of filing a petition for de facto parent status in certain situations, and those interested in doing so should contact an experienced child custody lawyer who can help them enforce their rights to raise and care for their stepchildren.