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Andrews: Can you protect the stepparent bond after a divorce?

July 16, 2014
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By Julie Andrews

The most important adults in a child’s life are not always the biological mother and father. Most of us are familiar with the Nigerian proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” It means that the upbringing of a child is a cumulative effort of parents, siblings, distant relatives and even neighbors. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our country has latched on to this theory. In 2013, a reported 1,302,000 children were living with someone other than a parent or grandparent (compared to 1,140,000 in 2012). (See U.S. Census Bureau, “America’s Families and Living Arrangements,” 2013, Table C2)

On June 5, 2000, the United States Supreme Court decided the conflicting legal rights of parents and grandparents when a grandparent sought visitation with a grandchild in the seminal case of Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57 (2000). This case analyzed the 14th Amendment and a parent’s right to administer the care, custody and control of their children as they see fit. The Troxel Court explained that “[t]he Fourteenth Amendment provides that no State shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Id. at 66. This amendment also “provides heightened protection against government interference with certain fundamental rights and liberty interests.” Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 719 (1997). Troxel held that grandparents had the right to seek visitation with a grandchild while balancing the biological parent’s rights. Today, all states, except Florida, have statutes giving grandparents the right to seek visitation of their grandchildren. (Jeff Atkinson, “Shifts in the Law Regarding the Rights of Third Parties to Seek Visitation and Custody of Children,” 47 Fam. L.Q. 1 (2013)). Indiana’s controlling statute is found at Ind. Code 31-17-5-1. A grandparent has standing to seek visitation after a biological parent dies, a divorce occurs or a child is born out of wedlock.

The right of grandparents to seek visitation of a child has expanded to “third-party visitation” by multiple people who have close contact with a child.

High divorce rates, death and paternity situations result in an increased number of blended families dealing with complicated issues. One of these very complicated dynamics is stepparent bonding. In a society that requires both household adults to work, it is not uncommon for a stepparent to spend a significant amount of time with a stepchild, even stepping into a parental role.

A subsequent divorce between a biological parent and stepparent can have a devastating impact on the stepparent/stepchild relationship that often rivals that of a biological parent and child. This relationship is so significant that nine of our states recognize stepparents as having a right to seek visitation of a child. See Atkinson, supra. While Indiana does not have a controlling statute on this issue, the Court of Appeals has held that a stepparent has standing to seek visitation under common law if there is “the existence of a custodial and parental relationship and that visitation would be in the best interests of the child.” Schaffer v. Schaffer, 884 N.E.2d 423, 428 (Ind. Ct. App. 2008).

The court will apply the factors found in grandparent visitation cases. Id. The court will consider “(1) the presumption that a fit parent acts in his or her child’s best interests; (2) the special weight that must be given to a fit parent’s decision to deny or limit visitation; (3) whether … visitation is in the child’s best interests; and (4) whether the parent has denied visitation or simply limited.” Id. at 427 (citing McCune v. Frey, 783 N.E.2d 752 (Ind. Ct. App. 2003)).

One distinguishing feature between grandparent visitation cases and stepparent visitation cases is the antagonistic nature of the relationship. What is not answered by Indiana’s small body of caselaw on this issue is what it means for a biological parent to “limit” time between a stepparent and stepchild. It is quite easy to find a grandparent visitation case in which the respondent/parent prevails because they offered sufficient time to the grandparent and the grandparent was unable to prove that deference should not be given to the parent’s decision. However, rulings in reported cases on stepparent visitation requests do not defer to parental decisions. A review of the handful of cases that exist on the issue of stepparent visitation reflects that most biological parents agreed to visitation and then sought to modify following a subsequent marriage or having “buyer’s remorse.” In Schaffer, the trial court ordered stepparent visitation. The biological mother later sought to modify and the court not only denied her request but also increased stepfather’s visitation, which was upheld by the Court of Appeals.

This body of law will continue to grow as families become more blended. Some issues to consider in this area include the fact that visitation rights do not create a reciprocal responsibility for a stepparent to financially support a stepchild. Also for consideration, the court that decides to grant stepparent visitation will have to create a schedule that is cognizant of the other biological parent’s time. At the heart of this issue is doing what is in the child’s best interests. If parents act as mature adults, they should uphold the child’s best interests without court involvement. Ultimately, the child at issue becomes a “hot potato” being passed between mom, dad, grandma and stepparent – the entire village.•

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Julie Andrews–jandrews@cohenandmalad.com–is a partner at Cohen & Malad LLP. Her practice is focused on family law matters. Andrews handles a variety of litigation involving contested divorce, child custody, parenting time and guardianship issues. She can be contacted at jandrews@cohenandmalad.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. What a fine article, thank you! I can testify firsthand and by detailed legal reports (at end of this note) as to the dire consequences of rejecting this truth from the fine article above: "The inclusion and expansion of this right [to jury] in Indiana’s Constitution is a clear reflection of our state’s intention to emphasize the importance of every Hoosier’s right to make their case in front of a jury of their peers." Over $20? Every Hoosier? Well then how about when your very vocation is on the line? How about instead of a jury of peers, one faces a bevy of political appointees, mini-czars, who care less about due process of the law than the real czars did? Instead of trial by jury, trial by ideological ordeal run by Orwellian agents? Well that is built into more than a few administrative law committees of the Ind S.Ct., and it is now being weaponized, as is revealed in articles posted at this ezine, to root out post moderns heresies like refusal to stand and pledge allegiance to all things politically correct. My career was burned at the stake for not so saluting, but I think I was just one of the early logs. Due, at least in part, to the removal of the jury from bar admission and bar discipline cases, many more fires will soon be lit. Perhaps one awaits you, dear heretic? Oh, at that Ind. article 12 plank about a remedy at law for every damage done ... ah, well, the founders evidently meant only for those damages done not by the government itself, rabid statists that they were. (Yes, that was sarcasm.) My written reports available here: Denied petition for cert (this time around): http://tinyurl.com/zdmawmw Denied petition for cert (from the 2009 denial and five year banishment): http://tinyurl.com/zcypybh Related, not written by me: Amicus brief: http://tinyurl.com/hvh7qgp

  2. Justice has finally been served. So glad that Dr. Ley can finally sleep peacefully at night knowing the truth has finally come to the surface.

  3. While this right is guaranteed by our Constitution, it has in recent years been hampered by insurance companies, i.e.; the practice of the plaintiff's own insurance company intervening in an action and filing a lien against any proceeds paid to their insured. In essence, causing an additional financial hurdle for a plaintiff to overcome at trial in terms of overall award. In a very real sense an injured party in exercise of their right to trial by jury may be the only party in a cause that would end up with zero compensation.

  4. Why in the world would someone need a person to correct a transcript when a realtime court reporter could provide them with a transcript (rough draft) immediately?

  5. This article proved very enlightening. Right ahead of sitting the LSAT for the first time, I felt a sense of relief that a score of 141 was admitted to an Indiana Law School and did well under unique circumstances. While my GPA is currently 3.91 I fear standardized testing and hope that I too will get a good enough grade for acceptance here at home. Thanks so much for this informative post.

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