Step-Parent Rights

Step-parents are non-biological parents who become caregivers to minors by marrying a child’s biological or adoptive parent. Step-parents play a large role in the lives of step-children. They may spend formative years with minors, taking them to games, tending to them in illness and helping them with schoolwork.

Is a Step-Parent a Legal Guardian?

Pennsylvania laws recognize step-parents as a class of individuals who may have standing to bring a custody case before the Court.

Step-Parents’ Right to Adopt

Step-parents have the ability to adopt their step-children if a biological parent’s parental rights are terminated, and, in fact, this step can help secure parental rights. An adoption makes the step-parent the legal parent of the child and can allow for custody or visitation rights in case of a divorce or in the event that anything happens to the birth parent.

For adoption to occur, the other birth parent of the minor must agree to relinquish all parental rights. If the birth parent does not agree, adoption may still be possible in cases with extenuating circumstances. However, termination of parental rights will still need to be established in court before adoption. The parental rights of the birth parent married to the step-parent remain after step-parent adoption.

It is important to work with an attorney in cases of step-parent adoption in PA. Courts in the state are not quick to terminate the rights of a natural parent, and previous grandparent or great-grandparent visitation and custody orders can impact the adoption. An attorney can work with you to help you navigate the adoption process.

Step-Parents’ Right to Custody

Step-parents do not automatically have rights to custody and visitation if they do not adopt their step-children. However, if in loco parentis is established, step-parents could potentially establish custodial rights. Establishing in loco parentis means proving that the step-parent acted as the step-child’s parent, even without the formal process of adoption.

If a step-parent is divorced from the birth parent and in loco parentis is established, the step-parent may be able to seek visitation or custody. For this to occur, the step-parent may need to prove they shared in the caring of the child, and the custodial and step-parent lived together.

Step-Parents’ Obligations

It is rare for step-parents to be obligated to pay child support for step-children; however, in cases where a step-parent has acted in loco parentis, it is possible that support may need to be paid.


The legal rights of step-parents vary, and when there is a question, most judges consider the specifics of a case, with a view toward protecting the best interests of the children involved. If you are a step-parent and would like to seek adoption or custody, contact MPL Law Firm for a consultation with a family law attorney.