When a couple is divorced and one or more of the ex-spouses remarries, disputes concerning the role of the stepparents often arise.

What does the law say about the role of the stepparent?

A recent New Jersey family court case, B.S. v. T.S. deals with these very issues. The case involved a couple that divorced in 2010 and shared joint custody of their now eight-year-old son. The ex-husband has now decided to remarry and his son already calls the future wife his ?step-mother.? The child refers to his natural parents as ?Mom? and ?Dad,? and will occasionally call the future step-mother, ?Mom.? The father and future stepmother claim that this occurred naturally and without any insistence, direction or compulsion.

The natural mother, however, objected to the child calling the stepmother “Mom,” and blames the future stepmother for permitting the situation to occur. The natural mother believes that this situation intrudes on the sanctity of the mother/child relationship, and that the child should be directed to call the future stepmother only by her first name.

The natural mother also objected to the future stepmother participating in any significant decisions regarding the child’s welfare. Apparently, the father advised his ex-wife that he would like to discuss important child-related issues with his new wife before taking firm positions. The ex-wife argued that child-related discussions and decisions should be exclusively between the natural parents, and that the stepparent has no place or relevant role in the process.

In order to sort these issues out, the court interviewed the child outside of the presence of the parents and future stepmother. The court found that the child has an excellent relationship with both his father and mother, and a strong relationship with his stepmother as well. The judge was satisfied that the child sometimes calls his step-mother “Mom,? at his own option, and as a term of affection for his stepmother rather than replacement or disrespect of his mother. The child also easily distinguished between his mother and future stepmother. Most significantly, he very naturally and comfortably referred to the future stepmother by both her first name, and by “Mom,” at his own interchangeable option, without any confusion on his part regarding the identify of his natural mother.

Ultimately, the court ruled as follows:

A) If the child is old and mature enough, the choice of what to call a stepparent belongs to the child.

The court stated, ?When two parents divorce and one remarries, a child may wish to call a stepparent either by first name, or by “Mom” or “Dad,” or a derivative of these words. In this case, where the child is of sufficient age and maturity to distinguish between his or her biological parent and stepparent, the choice of which way to address the stepparent belongs to the child, and not to either parent. Neither parent may force the child to either call a stepparent “Mom” or “Dad” against the child’s will, or forbid the child from doing so.?

B) All major parenting decisions belong to the natural parents, but a stepparent can assist his or her spouse.

On this issue the court stated, ?If a child calls a stepparent “Mom” or “Dad,” this action does not turn the stepparent into a parent. When two divorced and active parents share joint legal custody of a child, all major parenting decisions are to be made by the parents, and not by a stepparent. A stepparent, however, may assist the parent with whom he or she is partnered in helping raise a child, and in such capacity may potentially play an important, ongoing and positive role in a child’s upbringing and life.?

Family law can be complex. Our family law attorneys know that you need someone on your side during this difficult time. Contact Powell & Roman if you require assistance with your Family Law matter.