Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Scope of the Issue

According to Fine (1997) "the status of stepfamilies in the US law are partly ambiguous and inconsistent across issues and states." (p. 249) Generally, most stepfamily relationships are not legally recognized. In most of the states stepparents are not legally obliged to financially support their stepchildren. In some cases, however, stepparents will support their stepchildren even though they are not obligated to do so. There have been varied approaches to handling the responsibility of a stepparent regarding expenses a stepchild creates (e.g.: damage to property performed by a stepchild).

One of the most important issues to address in formulating policies that affect the stepfamily is to examine the stepparent-stepchild relationship. According to Fine (1997) stepparents should be given the option, not the requirement, of becoming more involved in the lives of the children by assuming parental rights and responsibilities.

Fine (1997) noted that stepparents who have had a meaningful relationship with their stepchildren should have visitation rights following a divorce should it occur. Fine also found empirical evidence that suggested stepchildren regard a stepparent's role as more ambiguous than biological children regard a biological parent's role. There is, however, some limited empirical evidence that suggests that the extent of the role is negatively related to the adjustment of stepfamily members. Therefore, the more well-adjusted the stepfamily members are in the stepfamily cycle, the less ambiguity is reflected in a stepparent's role in the family.

Mahoney (1997) addresses the issue of adoption noting that the nonresidential biological parent relinquishes custody of the child or they are seen as unfit to parent. The stepparent must then be willing to make a legal commitment to the child by choice, in comparison to the assumption of rights and obligations by biological parents.

In Western culture, there have rarely been any obligations placed on the stepparent when it comes to supporting their stepchildren. Only ten states impose a support duty on all stepparents who share a home with their spouses' minor children. In eight states there have been obligations to support the child if they would otherwise be poverty-stricken.

These issues, then, support the existence of the stepfamily characteristic that the legal relationships between stepparent and stepchild are either ambiguous or nonexistent. Because of this inherent ambiguity or nonexistent legal status, roles in the stepfamily, which are already very unclear, are not assisted in any way by legal statutes and definitions.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies