Stepparents in Washington state can spend years living with and providing for a child. They may feel like they fill the same role that any other parent would, and they may value their relationship with their stepchild as much as they value their marriage or even more if their marriage starts to sour.
A stepparent who is contemplating divorce or who has recently been served by their spouse might worry about what the end of their marital relationship would mean for their role as a stepparent. Unless they have formally adopted their stepchild, a stepparent may have limited rights related to custody and visitation.
Washington may grant stepparents shared custody
For nearly two decades, there has been a key court precedent influencing custody matters in families with stepparents and stepchildren. In 2004, the state Supreme Court ruled on a case that helped clarify the rights of de facto parents. Unlike biological and adoptive parents, de facto parents do not automatically have any legal protection under the existing family law statutes in Washington. However, the courts recognize that a de facto parent plays an important role in the upbringing of a child.
A stepparent who has lived with a child, provided them with financial support and played a role in their day-to-day life could ask the courts for shared custody or visitation based on their role as a de facto parent. Although they have not legally established their relationship with the child, they have played a parental role that has benefited the child.
Given that custody matters should always prioritize what is in the best interests of the children, family law judges in Washington are likely to consider the very valuable role a stepparent plays in a child’s life when determining how to divide parental rights and responsibilities in a divorce. Stepparents can present evidence that they deserve consideration as a de facto parent.
The closer a stepparent is to their stepchildren and the longer they have maintained that bond, the greater their chances of convincing the court that they deserve the same rights as any other de facto parent. Seeking legal guidance to learn more about the nuances of Washington state law and important prior court rulings may help those worried about preserving their relationships during a divorce in these and a host of other ways.