What are the visitation rights of a stepparent after a divorce? This thorny problem frequently arises, as it does here, when a man (hereinafter stepfather) marries a divorced woman who had a child by a prior marriage and they thereafter are divorced.*fn1 Recent cases in New Jersey have addressed the issue of when an obligation to support a stepchild may be imposed upon a stepfather after he divorces the child's natural mother, but no case has addressed the issue of visitation rights. We hold that this stepfather is not entitled to any visitation rights, albeit under certain circumstances a stepparent may be entitled to visitation rights with a stepchild.
Visitation rights can arise either by statute or general principles of equity. Statutes grant visitation rights to parents, N.J.S.A. 9:2-4, and to grandparents and siblings, N.J.S.A. 9:2-7.1, but New Jersey has no statute granting visitation rights to a stepparent after a divorce. Consequently, visitation rights of stepparents can arise only under general principles of equity.
On June 25, 1985, the stepfather married a divorcee who had a four-year-old daughter by a prior marriage, separated from her and the child in June 1986, and was divorced on December 15, 1986. Thus, the stepfather actually lived with the child for about one year.
There are now three father figures in the life of this seven-year-old child. First, the biological father who receives visitation once a month in his home state of Connecticut. Second, this stepfather. And third, the present live-in boyfriend and presumably soon to be the third husband of the natural mother. Both biological parents vehemently oppose visitation by the stepfather. Not surprisingly, the mother contends that the true motive of the stepfather is not to maintain a relationship with the child but with her through the child. The live-in boyfriend has not entered this case.
Despite the fact that the property settlement agreement provided that the mother would not seek child support, it did provide that:
[i]t is understood and agreed that the loving relationship which exists between the minor child Christine and the husband shall be continued. Specifically, the husband shall have reasonable and liberal visitation rights with the minor child Christine, not withstanding [ sic ] the fact that the minor child Christine is not the result of the marriage between husband and wife.
The stepfather received regular visitation after the separation but when the mother developed a close relationship with her present boyfriend, visitation ceased and this motion to enforce litigant's rights ensued. The stepfather contends that he previously was able "to maintain my relationship with my stepdaughter without too many problems."
Court ordered visitation mediation was unsuccessful but the mediator did express concern that visitation with the stepfather "may cause the child some emotional confusion" not only because coordination of the child's activities with the three father figures might "be just too much for the child to handle," but also because the child "has been able to successfully terminate the relationship with her stepfather." The child told the mediator:
"I don't want to be his daughter, because I have my own dad," but the mediator suspected that this "may be based in part on the desires of her mother."
While we are, of course, concerned with the visitation rights of stepfathers, it must nonetheless be appreciated that the ultimate goal of the court is to do what is in the best interest of the child. We are dealing with competing rights. On one hand, those of a stepfather to continue and maintain a loving relationship which he asserts he has developed with the child and, on the other hand, those of the child to a non-fragmented parental structure and a life not unduly burdened with visitation obligations. There must be some limits on stepparent visitation rights because in our society it is not difficult to conceive of a child having three, four or even more stepfathers and there are not enough days in a week for the child to have visitation with all of them. Frequently, there will be no satisfactory solution which will please everyone. Justice to both the stepfather and the child, which is the desired objective, can rarely ...