What happens when you’re divorcing someone who isn’t a child’s biological parent? What if you are that person; someone whose devoted a lot of time and attention towards loving and raising a child who isn’t biologically your own? Given the wide variety of family structures these days, it’s not uncommon to see divorces that involve custody arrangements involving stepchildren or non-biological offspring. If a biological parent is handicapped or deficient in any way, then custody sharing of children by non-biological parents is even more common.

Why bond is more important than biology

If you brought someone into your child’s life and built a situation where they developed a natural parental bond with that person, the fact that things went south between the two of you doesn’t mean you can just yank your child away without consequence. Children form attachments to those who are involved in caring for them, and depending on the circumstance, these attachments can be every bit as strong as those to a natural parent. Anyone can donate a sperm or an egg to make a baby. But if they aren’t involved in the child’s life, that doesn’t make them a parent. Likewise, a parent is someone who puts in time towards raising a child, regardless of heredity. Divorce courts are beginning to realize this, and may allow visitation or custody rights to non-biological parents who nonetheless have established an active role in parenting the child.

Custody considerations regarding stepkids & non-biological children

Whether or not a mother-figure or father-figure is given custody rights to a non-biological child usually depends on several factors:

A) The length of time this person has been a mother figure or a father figure to the child.

B) How extensively involved they were in the caretaking of the child prior to the divorce. For example, if two people married when the mother had a 6-month-old daughter, and the mother worked at an office while the father worked at home while being a primary caretaker of that child up to the point of divorce when she was 6-years-old, a judge might consider the non-biological father to have been primary caregiver up to this point, and consider this as a factor in awarding joint custody.

C) What does the child want? Most judges will grant some type of visitation arrangement when the child clearly expresses a desire to continue to see the parent figure in question. Often times this will be something akin to the visitation rights of grandparents, but it may also involve some type of shared custody.

D) In certain instances, a non-biological caregiver may even be awarded primary or sole custody of the children, even if he or she is of no biological relation to them. This usually happens in cases where the biological parent has drug abuse issues or other impediments to the proper care of the kids, or when the biological parent has essentially walked out on the kids or abandoned them to the non-biological parent.

E) Keep in mind that with custody comes responsibility, and so any stepparent applying for custody rights may also then be called upon to contribute child support for that child or otherwise take on some of the financial obligations of raising them.

F) And finally, for those who may be wondering, it doesn’t work the other way around: when a stepparent DOES NOT desire to stay involved, courts can’t make them share custody or continue to be a parent after divorce, even if they’ve been there the child’s whole life. And since after divorce they have no legal ties or responsibilities towards children who aren’t their own, courts cannot order child support, either.

What about in-vitro fertilization, surrogate pregnancy or adoption?

In cases where a couple adopted or used surrogate pregnancy or in-vitro fertilization, both parents are recognized and treated as biological parents as far as the courts are concerned. If a child was conceived by the mother’s egg but with a sperm donor on the other side, the father is still recognized legally as the biological parent to that child. Whenever couples make the choice to use an alternate method of conception or go the route of adoption, from that decision onward the mother and father involved are treated as though they are biological parents.