Step Children and Divorce

Today’s high divorce rate has resulted in multiple divorces and tangled family relationships. One of the more tragic situations involves step-children. What do you do if a bond has formed between your child and their step-parent? Divorce cuts all legal ties but it can’t erase the emotional ones. Step-children are family, too. The child has already gone through the trauma of separation from one parent; now they have to go through it a second, or even a third time. All the negative effects suffered by children of divorce are multiplied. What can be done to ease this situation?

Seek Custody

Believe it or not, there are cases where step-parents can be awarded joint or even sole custody of a step-child. What has to be proven is that the step-parent has a strong relationship with the child. Testimony of the other parent’s unsuitability may also be required.

Here is an actual example from a case in Texas. A man we’ll identify only as “Cowboy Bill” married a woman with a history of acute alcoholism. She had one child, a boy. Cowboy Bill sued for sole custody when the inevitable divorce occurred. There was ample evidence that the mother was an unsuitable parent who had numerous incidents lodged with child protective agencies. The court stripped the mother of all parental rights and awarded sole custody to the step-father. When Cowboy Bill died a few years later, the courts refused to return custody to the mother. The step-child is now being raised by a favorite uncle.


The most common solution is to include the step-child in the visitation orders. This may be difficult to arrange is there is a lot of conflict in the divorce. It will be considerably easier, however, if there are children from the current marriage. The courts will be reluctant to “split-up” siblings during visitation weekends. Even if there are no children from the current marriage, the courts may still order visitation. Courts today are well aware of the existence of the new extended family. Testimony showing that adding the step-child to the visitation order is in the child’s “best interest” will have weight with the court.

Maintain Contact

If visitation is not ordered, then an open invitation from the step-parent does a lot of good. First, it reassures the child that they are still important and loved no matter what the legal relationship. As children get older, they are very likely to accept that invitation. At a certain age, there is really nothing the custodial parent can do to prevent it.

If children want to stay in contact, they will find a way to do it. Given the nature of the internet, there is no reason why contact cannot be established immediately. The former step-parent should be very careful about any legal considerations that may apply in their area.


When the child is excluded from visitation, then counseling is going to be mandatory. Step-parents and their step-children need to understand their new roles after the divorce. More importantly, they are going to have to go through the grieving process.

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