Stepparents often have no legal standing when it comes to custody of their stepchildren after a divorce. However, Texas courts will consider parental rights for stepparents when they have spent time actively parenting a stepchild. For an example of this situation, consider the recent case described below.
In this case, a stepfather seeks custody after the death of his ex-wife, even when custody is awarded to the child’s maternal grandparents. This complicated case highlights exactly how nuanced child custody cases can be. If you’re facing a child custody case or concern, it’s time to reach out for the skilled legal guidance of an experienced Killeen child custody attorney.
The Early Relationship
In the custody case mentioned, the opinion of the appeals court shares that the mother was pregnant with a child from a previous relationship when she met the man who became the child’s stepfather. The stepfather was present at the child’s birth in 2007, and he married the child’s mother that same year. The man went on to fill the role of a father in the child’s life.
In 2010, the couple had a child together. In 2016, the parental rights of the stepchild’s biological father were terminated when he voluntarily relinquished them. When the stepfather and his wife divorced in 2018, the decree addressed only the couple’s biological child because the stepfather hadn’t adopted his stepchild.
In their divorce, both spouses were awarded joint managing conservatorship and a standard possession order for their biological child. While the stepchild wasn’t addressed by the court, the parents applied the possession order to both children and shared custody of each according to the parenting time schedule for their biological child.
The Mother’s Hospitalization
In 2021, the mother required hospitalization, and she asked her ex to keep both children. During this time, the mother’s father arrived from Virginia and demanded that both children be released to him and their grandmother. When the stepfather refused to hand the children over, the grandfather alleged that the stepfather had committed parental kidnapping.
The Mother’s Death
Soon after hospitalization, the mother passed away. The next day, her ex filed a motion seeking temporary orders that would name him sole managing conservator of both his stepson and his biological child. He failed to name the maternal grandparents in his motion, and they didn’t receive formal notice.
Simultaneously, the stepfather obtained an emergency temporary restraining order that was intended to keep his stepson in his current school and prevent any disturbance regarding possession of the child.
The Grandfather’s Next Move
From here, the maternal grandfather of both children wrote a letter to the court demanding copies of his former son-in-law’s pleadings – indicating that the man had forwarded screenshots of his motion to modify. The grandfather relayed his belief that a co-conservatorship could be established via mediation.
A Deal Is Struck
Soon after this request, the grandfather and his former son-in-law entered what is known as a Rule 11 Agreement, which determined that the former son-in-law’s stepson would remain in his current school and would remain living with his stepfather until both sides could reach an agreement or a court order was entered.
A mediation date was set, and the court extended the stepfather’s temporary restraining order for an additional 14 days. This order specifically prohibited the removal of the man’s stepchild from the Texas county they lived in.
A Few Months Later
Just a few months later, the children’s maternal grandfather and grandmother filed a petition to intervene and a plea to the jurisdiction, asking that the stepfather be dismissed from the case on the grounds that he had no legal standing. The stepfather of the older child filed his own petition to intervene and requested sole managing conservatorship of the child.
Legal standing is a constitutional prerequisite to filing and maintaining a suit under Texas law. It means that the plaintiff must have a sufficient connection to the situation addressed by the legal action. This can be a high legal standard, making it essential to work closely with a seasoned Killeen custody lawyer if your legal standing is called into question.
In this case, the child's grandparents said that because the stepfather has no legal connection to his stepchild, he doesn’t fulfill the prerequisite necessary to file his motion. Without legal standing, the stepfather wouldn’t have the right to argue his case in a Texas court.
The Trial Court’s Ruling
At trial, the court heard testimony from all the following witnesses:
Two of the mother’s friends
While the friends of the child’s mother testified that the stepfather filled the role of the child’s father, the court granted the plea regarding standing and gave the grandparents joint managing conservatorship of the child – ordering both sides to coordinate their efforts by immediately turning the stepfather’s stepson over to his grandmother.
The Stepfather’s Appeal
The child’s stepfather filed a separate petition to adopt the child, to which he attached a consent to adoption signed by the child. This consent confirmed that the child – who called his stepfather “Dad” – wanted the adoption to go through. In part, the boy’s letter read as follows:
[Stepfather] is my Dad, and I have always consider[ed] him to be my Dad. He has always been in my life and has always taken care of me. He has also helped me with school, and if I was ever sick or injured, he was there to care and help me. I have always lived with my dad and my mom until the divorce. That’s when I started living with my dad every other weekend, and he always made sure to take care of me and my brother. We were allowed to go see our Dad whenever we wanted when we were not seeing him on the weekends, and we always spent holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and birthdays with him, including my mom’s and my dad’s birthday, and Mother’s and Dad’s Day. I have been with my dad since my mom got sick last summer and died.
The stepfather also sought review of the grandparent’s claim regarding his standing, but his petition was denied. At this point, he appealed the trial court’s ruling.
The Stepfather Asserts His Legal Standing
The stepfather asserted his own legal standing in the case under the Texas Family Code.
Standing is conferred upon a party “who has had actual care, control, and possession of the child for at least six months ending not more than 90 days” before the petition is filed. Texas case law holds that non-parents, including stepparents, who have not shared their home with the child in question during the required time period do not have legal standing – regardless of the amount of care they provided.
In order to meet the requirements of legal standing, a non-parent must demonstrate that all the following apply to their relationship with the child in question:
They acted as a parent by providing for the child’s daily needs
They acted as a parent by sharing their principal residence with the child
They acted as a parent by exercising the kind of “guidance, governance, and direction” that parents do
It is essential to prove your legal standing to a court unquestionably. If your legal standing has fallen into doubt, contact a skilled Killeen custody lawyer for help proving your right to be heard in court.
The Issue Becomes More Complicated
The stepfather’s legal standing at the time he originally sought possessory conservatorship, which was soon after his ex died, remains unclear – because he had periodic possession of his stepchild due to the arrangement with the boy’s mother at that time.
However, this issue was not addressed by the appeals court because, by the time he filed his petition to intervene, there was uncontested evidence that he fulfilled all the requirements related to legal standing. As such, the appeals court reversed the trial court’s finding concerning the stepfather’s legal standing.
Due Process and the Law
The matter did not end there. The stepfather argued that the final order should be reversed because what was determined to be his lack of standing at the time kept him from participating in the trial.
The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution prohibits states from depriving people of their “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Due process in this context generally means the right to be afforded notice and the right to be afforded a meaningful opportunity to be heard.
After the grandparents succeeded with their plea regarding legal standing, the stepfather was prohibited from participating in the proceedings, even though he had a legal right to participate. In other words, his due process was denied. As such, the appeals court reversed the order related to legal standing and all subsequent orders, allowing the stepfather to participate in the case moving forward.
It’s important to note that the appeals court’s finding does not change the outcome of the case. Instead, it sends the case back to be heard by the trial court. Because the trial court did not recognize the stepfather’s legal standing, it did not hear the case regarding his claim to custody of his stepchild. The appeals court lobbed the matter back to the trial court.
Reliance on Informal Custody Arrangements
This case makes it very clear how relying on informal custody arrangements can make it far more difficult for a stepparent who is very close to a stepchild to protect their legal rights – or even to assert any legal rights.
In this case, the stepson’s biological father gave up parental rights, which opened up the stepfather’s opportunity to adopt him. When this opportunity was missed, it set the stage for the difficulties that arose upon the mother’s tragic passing.
Because the stepfather failed to protect his legal rights as a stepparent who was very involved in his children’s lives, the stepfather, his stepson, and his biological child all suffered significant stress and upheaval.
If you are a stepparent who would like to explore your legal options, consulting with a seasoned child custody attorney who has considerable experience guiding challenging cases like yours is to you and your stepchild’s advantage.
Child Custody in Texas
As the biological parent of a child in Texas, you have solid rights that can only be denied under extreme circumstances. When parents are together, they share these legal rights, and when they divorce or are no longer together, they address the matter of child custody in terms of both legal custody and physical custody.
Legal and physical custody will lay the groundwork for your relationship with your children moving forward. As such, it is far too important to leave up to chance. If you’re facing a custody case, contact a skilled Killeen custody lawyer to help you reach your custody goals.
Legal custody determines how parents make primary parenting decisions when they’re no longer a couple. Legal custody can be either sole or joint, and the options within these classifications include the following arrangements:
Both parents can continue making these decisions between themselves – the way they did when they were married.
Both parents can continue making these decisions between themselves, but one has the ability to break a tie if it becomes necessary to do so.
The parents can divide these primary decisions between themselves according to the kind of decision that needs to be made.
One parent can make each primary parenting decision on their own.
The kinds of decisions that are addressed by legal custody include these considerations:
Decisions about healthcare
Decisions about religious upbringing
Decisions about extracurriculars and travel
Physical custody determines the schedule by which the parents share their time with their children. Some parents split their parenting time evenly down the middle, while others assign primary custodial status to one parent.
In Texas, stepparents have no automatic entitlement to custody or visitation rights for their stepchildren. Instead, the State of Texas sees stepparents as interested third parties who must first meet the requirements related to standing before filing lawsuits about visitation. There’s no guarantee that a stepparent will be awarded any custodial or visitation rights in Texas.
Turn to an Experienced Killeen Child Custody Attorney Today
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a compassionate child custody attorney who appreciates how stressful child custody cases involving stepparents can be. Mr. Pritchard is committed to employing the full force of his impressive legal experience and insight in pursuit of a favorable resolution of your child custody case – no matter how complex.