Child custody disputes are often complex, emotionally charged cases. When the dispute involves persons who aren’t the child’s legal parents, such as step-parents, they can quickly become even more difficult.
Maryland case law when it comes to step-parents’ custody rights has changed a great deal in recent years, making it confusing for step-parents to determine what they can and should do if they’re involved in a custody dispute. Keep reading to learn more about the rights of step-parents in Maryland.
Step-Parents’ Rights in Maryland
Maryland law differentiates between a child’s biological or adoptive parents and anyone else who might be a parental figure. Anyone who isn’t the child’s biological or adoptive parent is known as a third party. This includes step-parents, grandparents, and other family members. Maryland law further divides third parties into two additional categories: de facto parents and anyone else.
Broadly speaking, de facto parents are non-biological, non-adoptive parents who have a parental relationship with a child. To legally qualify as a de facto parent, the adult must show that:
- At least one of the child’s biological or adoptive parents consented to and fostered the non-parent’s establishment of a parental relationship with the child
- The child and non-parent lived together in the same household
- The non-parent assumed the obligations of parenthood, such as by responsibility for the child’s care, education, and development without expectation of financial compensation
- The non-parent has been in a parental role long enough to establish an emotional bond and dependent relationship with the child that’s parental in nature.
If a third party can establish that they are a de facto parent, they’d have an easier time making a case for custody and visitation with the child. The courts determine custody and visitation rights based on the child’s best interests, and as a recognized de facto parent, the third party will have solid legal grounds for custody and visitation.
If a third party can’t establish that they’re a de facto parent, they’d have a difficult time arguing for custody and visitation with the child. For third parties who aren’t de facto parents to be awarded custody and visitation, they must show that the child’s current parents are unfit, that there are exceptional circumstances justifying that the third party’s custody, or both.
Arguing that a parent is unfit requires showing that one or more of the following conditions apply:
- The parent has neglected the child.
- The parent has abandoned the child.
- The parent inflicted or allowed another party to inflict physical or mental injuries on the child.
- The parent suffers from a mental or emotional illness that compromises their ability to properly care for the child.
- The parent has shown that they have renounced their duties to care and provide for the child.
- The parent has engaged in behavior that’s detrimental to the child’s welfare.
The “exceptional circumstances” argument can be even more difficult to prove, as it involves a number of factors like:
- The period a child has been separated from their non-biological or non-adoptive parents
- How old the child was when the third party assumed care
- The strength of the bond between the child and the third party
- The emotional effect on the child of changing the existing custody arrangement
- The stability of the child’s current home environment
- The child’s physical, mental, and emotional needs
These factors are subjective, so it’s difficult to make a case for custody using exceptional circumstances. Regardless, you should seek sound legal advice in any custody dispute.
How a Lawyer Could Help
Family law disputes are often quite complicated, so if you want to reach a positive outcome in your case, you need help from an experienced Maryland family law attorney. If you’re a step-parent seeking custody of a child, a lawyer could help demonstrate that you meet the requirements to be considered a de facto parent. This would make it much easier for you to argue for custody and visitation with the child.
If you don’t meet the standards for a de facto parent, an attorney could still assist with your custody dispute. Your lawyer can determine if the child’s parents are unfit or whether exceptional circumstances justify a different custody arrangement.
At McKeon Law Firm, we have more than two decades of experience handling child custody disputes and other family law matters. Family law is all we do, and we take a personalized approach to every case because we know there’s no one-size-fits-all method for these disputes. Contact our office today to set up your confidential consultation.