As more and more children are being raised in non-traditional family units, Courts are tasked with keeping up with the changing norms. Traditionally, only a parent (either biological or adoptive) could be awarded parenting time with a child. However, Courts now have the discretion to award visitation with a child to a party who is not their parent if they can prove the existence of a custodial and parental relationship with the child and that visitation would in the child’s best interest. Non-parent visitation is most typically seen with grandparents, step-parents, or same sex couples. Frequently, a step-parent will file for visitation with their step-child after they separate from the child’s parent.
Courts are recognizing that it can be detrimental to a child to not have contact with a step-parent that has been in the child’s life for a significant period of time. In some instances, a step-parent may be the only mother or father the child has known. Some children may not even be aware the step-parent is not their biological parent. Protecting the child’s best interest is always the paramount consideration for the Court.
It is a well-established legal principle that parents have a fundamental constitutional right to determine the care, custody, and control of their child. Whenever a non-parent is seeking visitation or custody from the child’s parent, the parent is entitled to a presumption that they are acting in their child’s best interest, and their opposition to visitation or custody in a non-parent is given special weight. It is the burden of the step-parent to overcome that presumption and to prove that they have a parental relationship with the child and that it is in the child’s best interest to have visitation with him or her. The existence of a step-parent relationship does not automatically prove a parental relationship with the child, but Indiana courts recognize that a step-parent relationship is a strong indicator that a custodial and parental relationship exists. In determining whether step-parent visitation is in the best interest of the child, the Court can appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to investigate the issue.
As with any Court Order regarding a child, a step-parent visitation order may be modified upon request by either party. The standard to modify a step-parent visitation order is whether it is in the child’s best interest for modification to occur. It is the burden of the person requesting the modification or termination of the step-parent visitation to prove the requested modification is in the best interest of the child.