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March 8, 2019
Courts are extending visitation rights to stepparents and extended family

Several years ago I had a client – who, of course, shall remain nameless. He considered himself the father of two girls. His eldest, as he called her, had been in his life since she was two years old. His youngest was his child with his wife. His wife had filed for divorce. The most important thing in the world to this client was that he stay in the lives of his two girls.

With the younger daughter, who was his legal and biological daughter, we were successful. She’s in her 20’s now, and her dad is very proud that she’s in her third year of college – the first member of his family to get a college education.

The eldest daughter, though, had another father, previously adjudicated, who paid support, but hadn’t seen her in years. My client was really the only dad she’d ever known. My client wanted, so very much, to have visitation with the older daughter, but the law at that time made no provision for stepparent visitation. His wife cut my client out of that child’s life without a second thought. He’d been that young lady’s stepfather, “daddy,” soccer coach, softball coach, for just over 12 years – and with a snap of her mother’s fingers, my client was removed from her life. My client was even disinvited to her quincinera, which – ironically – he’d just finished paying for at the time his wife filed for divorce.

Notably, that older daughter didn’t play organized soccer or softball again. Mom’s new squeeze wasn’t interested in being a dad. That promising young woman became an early unwed mother. Rather than going into college, she never finished high school. A coincidence? Perhaps. Correlation is not, after all, causation.

The law has changed now. A stepparent can now be awarded visitation with a child if the court finds that visitation would be in the child’s best interests. So, thanks to Family Code section 3101, a stepparent who might otherwise lose all contact with a child he or she has raised, and loved, can now ask the court for visitation with that child. It’s not a guarantee that the court will grant it – but before, we couldn’t even ask.

The California State Legislature has made other significant additions to the list of persons who can, under specific circumstances, seek visitation orders for a minor child not of their body. Grandparent visitation has been around for a while; and as discussed above, we added stepparent visitation. Now, a former guardian can seek visitation under the Family Code upon termination of the guardianship; and in the event of the death of a child’s parent, “the children, siblings, parents, and grandparents of the deceased parent may be granted reasonable visitation with the child during the child’s minority upon a finding that the visitation would be in the best interest of the minor child.” That’s Family Code section 3102, a sister statute to 3101.

I think these statutes give non-parents a significant opportunity to ask the court to consider the nature and extent of their relationships with children in their lives. Like any statute, we will probably see some people trying to abuse it or overstep its intent; but, now, at least we can raise the question with the court.

I can think of one young woman whose life, I believe, would be very different today had this statute existed all those years ago. Sadly – for her, and for my client – this came far too late.

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