Psychological Parents: What You Need to Know

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When it comes to custody and parenting time, most people only consider the struggle between a birth mother and a birth father. However, you should know that other people involved in a child’s life may assert legal rights.   Since the year 2000, New Jersey law has recognized the rights of “psychological parents;” individuals who have come to care for and raise a child despite not being a birth parent.

For many years, the courts struggled with cases involving a former stepparent seeking visitation or even parental rights of a child had raised but never adopted.  Ultimately, the courts took action to carve out rights for these de facto parents under certain situations. In 2015, the Court tested the boundaries of psychological parenting when they considered a unique case of three adults attempting to “tri-parent” a child. This case involves a number of complicated issues including same-sex partners, alimony, and moving a child to another jurisdiction.

Who Qualifies as a Psychological Parent?

In New Jersey, the law requires custody of a child to rest with a biological parent absent “exceptional circumstances.” In the case V.C. vs. M.J.B., the court held that a third party’s status as a psychological parent constituted an “exceptional circumstance.” To qualify as a psychological parent, you would have had to live with the child for a substantial portion of their life and meet four other factors:

1)    The biological parent consented to and fostered a parent-like relationship with you.

2)    The biological parent and child lived with you.

3)    You assumed the obligations of parenting by taking responsibility for the child’s care.

4)    You held this relationship long enough to build a bond with the child.

If you meet all of these requirements, the court may find that you are a psychological parent. Once that status is granted the psychological parent is awarded legal rights and stands as a co-equal with the biological parent.

The Court Speaks on Psychological Parenting

In a prior article, we told you the story of the case’s ruling in D.G. vs. K.S. This case included the birth mother, the birth father, and the birth father’s same-sex partner. When the birth mother decided to relocate out of state, the two men filed a petition seeking a formal custody agreement and recognition of the father’s partner as a psychological parent. The mother countersued seeking child support.

Before the trial, the parties agreed that the father’s partner was a psychological parent and the court agreed. The court awarded all three legal custody and required all three to contribute financially to the care of the child. Interestingly, the court denied the mother’s claim for child support by instead ordering the birth father contribute to the costs of parenting. The Court also held that while a psychological parent was given rights as a parent, the law could not compel him to pay child support. Despite this, the partner voluntarily agreed to be bound to support the child financially.

Psychological Parenting in Adoption Cases

New Jersey law is filled with cases involving termination of parental rights and petitions for adoption by non-biologically related individuals wanting to adopt. Just last month, the court considered the issue in Division of Child Protection and Permanency v. C.D.-M.   The decision in this case only applies to the particular parties and is not considered precedential law.  Initials were used for purposes of anonymity.

In this matter, the father (referred to as Carl), appealed the court’s decision to terminate his parental rights to his three children.  Two of the children were proven to be biologically related. Although Carl’s name is on the third child’s birth certificate, test results showed he was not the biological father of one of the children.

The State was contacted when the biological mother left the house, and Carl was unable to take care of the three children. There was tremendous back and forth with the children’s residence.  Carl also showed episodes of intoxication that were troubling. Housing was an issue, and the children went to live with Carl’s brother and his wife. Ultimately, Carl presented them with a notarized letter granting them parental custody of his two biological children.

At some point, Carl’s brother could no longer afford to take care of the children and returned them to their father. The family lived in a living room of a one family home. Ultimately, the State removed the children. Carl was not providing stability, and there were concerns about substance abuse. The children were placed with a non-relative family as resource parents.

The children appeared to prosper under the care of the resource parents.  When Carl’s parental rights were terminated, the resource parents moved to adopt the children. The court agreed with expert opinion asserting that the resource parents had become the children’s psychological parents. Their adoption was approved.

This is just one of many cases where the court evaluates the prospect of psychological parenting when determining custody and visitation.

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If you are facing the potential of custody issues stemming from a divorce the Law Office of Sam Stoia is here to help. Contact us today to set up a complimentary consultation.