Sep 21

Do Stepparents Have Legal Rights in South Carolina?

Written by: Megan Dell


Being a stepparent is not always easy!

With the ever-changing structures and relationships in “modern” families, many include stepparents and stepchildren. Not surprisingly, if you are a stepparent in South Carolina, you might be interested in learning more about what rights you, as a stepparent, might have with regard to your stepchildren. Indeed, there is much to consider regarding stepparents’ rights

Perhaps you want to have child custody or visitation rights should your relationship with your partner, your stepchildren’s parent, end. Or you would like to know how it is your stepchildren can inherit from you when you die. Regardless of your reason, you believe one thing for sure: you want the best for your stepchildren.

That said, stepparents’ rights are not necessarily intuitive. Though you might be pulling significant weight emotionally, financially, or socially in your relationship with your stepchildren, such as taking them to and from school or helping to finance their day-to-day expenses, your rights are not as implicit as you might think. 

Instead, you must be proactive about pursuing your rights as a stepparent. Marrying your stepchildren’s parent is insufficient; you must adopt them via stepparent adoption or become a de facto custodian. Below is important information for pursuing stepparents’ rights so that you can begin the process.

Stepparents and their legal rights

Do stepparents have legal rights in South Carolina?

Stepparents do not have the same legal rights as adoptive or biological parents. Though you married your stepchildren’s parent, you do not have any stepparents’ rights to make medical decisions, choose where they go to school, or decide what religion they practice.

Your income will also not be included in decisions and calculations regarding child support, nor will your stepchildren have any rights to inherit government benefits or other inheritance from you when you die.

As a stepparent, you cannot sign school documents, as you are not the child’s adoptive parent or legal guardian. Nor will you have custody rights due to marrying their parent. Stepparent rights are not legal purely on the basis of marriage; they must be acquired.

However, there are ways for you to gain legal rights regarding your stepchildren. You can apply for custody and visitation rights due to being a de facto custodian. Stepparent rights can also be asserted through a process called stepparent adoption. Regardless of the avenue, both processes, discussed in more detail below, can help you attain stepparent rights

stepmom and child

Can a stepparent get custody and visitation rights in South Carolina?

Stepparents’ rights in South Carolina depend upon being considered a de facto or de jure parent of a child. Even if you married your stepchildren’s parent, you will not have the same custody or visitation rights that they have. This means you cannot make decisions about major educational, medical, or religious matters, sign school documents, or attend school events without your spouse (the child’s custodial parent).

Stepparents’ rights to visitation depend upon an application if you are not a de jure (adoptive or biological) parent. In order to apply for custody and visitation rights, you must be considered a de facto custodian. If you are a de facto custodian of a stepchild, you can apply and gain legal stepparent rights.

stepdad and child playing together

Becoming a De Facto Custodian: What to know

To be considered a de facto custodian, you must be considered a primary caregiver or financial supporter of the child. Moreover, you must have resided with the child for a certain amount of time to demonstrate this. If the child is under 3 years of age, you must have resided with them for at least six months; if they are 3 years of age or older, that time extends to one year or more.

Once you are determined to be a de facto custodian by the court, you are considered to have standing to apply for visitation rights. If the court finds that a child’s biological parent(s) are unfit or there are other compelling circumstances, you can then get visitation rights

Like the process for attaining visitation rights, you must be considered a de facto custodian to apply for and get custody rights to your stepchildren in South Carolina. Once these rights are established, you can make more decisions for them.

a happy blended family with a stepparent

Can a stepparent acquire legal rights to stepchildren through stepparent adoption?

If you wish to pursue custody and visitation rights, you can acquire stepparent rights through stepparent adoption. To adopt a child in South Carolina, you must be related to the child through blood or marriage. One of these criteria for stepparents is met upon marrying your stepchild’s biological parent. 

If you are related to children through either blood or marriage, you can begin the stepparent adoption process, allowing you full legal rights regarding your stepchildren, including visitation rights and custody. The biggest hurdle for stepparents looking to adopt their stepchildren is consent; two to three individuals must consent to the adoption before a court approves it.

stepfather and child hugging

To adopt a stepchild, you need consent from several people

First, your spouse must consent to the adoption. In many cases, you should already have this. However, in some cases, you may not, and you will need to get their consent. Second, the child’s other biological parent (the non-custodial parent) must consent to the adoption. 

In South Carolina, a stepparent adoption terminates the parental rights of the non-custodial biological parent, in turn giving them to the stepparent. In a sense, stepparent rights are those that a non-custodial biological parent gives up. This consent can be acquired through voluntary or judicial means.

If the child’s other parent voluntarily gives up their parental rights, they can choose to relinquish their rights as a parent without the interference of a court. However, if they do not wish to do so, you will likely have to go to court to get their rights judicially terminated, as long as that is in the child’s best interest. If this is your situation, your case might be strengthened if you are a child’s de facto custodian or psychological parent, particularly if their non-custodial biological parent does not fill those roles.

Third, if your stepchild is 14 or older, they must also consent to their adoption. Once you have consent from all eligible parties — or the other parent’s rights have been judicially terminated — you can file with the court to begin the stepparent adoption process, which sometimes takes as few as six months. Particularly if everyone involved consents, this process is much more streamlined than traditional, non-stepparent adoptions, making legal stepparent rights simpler to acquire.

stepparents and their legal rights; everything you want to know!

Find a South Carolina family law attorney who understands stepparents’ rights

Stepparent rights are an important factor in your relationship with your stepchildren. If you wish to have a say in important matters and help set them up for a bright future, you will want to pursue legal stepparents’ rights in the most practical manner you can, given your circumstances. 

At Dell Family Law, we understand that family situations can change. Our team of skilled South Carolina family law attorneys has vast experience asserting stepparent rights on behalf of stepparents, whether by making a claim on your behalf that you are a de facto custodian of your stepchildren or by assisting you with an application for stepparent adoption. Having trusted counsel by your side can help facilitate the process and allow you to present the strongest possible case.

If you want to learn more about stepparents’ rights and what it would take to pursue yours, we are here to help. Contact us in our Charleston office today

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