Blended families have become more and more common in the past few decades. Families always come with challenges, but a family composed of stepparents and stepsiblings can present a distinct set of challenges. Similar challenges are likely to arise if the spouses in the blended family get divorced. Most blended family issues that appear in Missouri divorce cases involve the children. If you are part of a blended family and have questions about the divorce process, a divorce attorney with experience in Missouri family law can help.
“Blended family” is not a legal term. As mentioned above, it refers to a family in which one or both spouses have children from a previous marriage or relationship.
Perhaps the most famous fictional example of a blended family is the eponymous family from the TV series The Brady Bunch, in which a man with three sons marries a woman with three daughters. The show aired from 1969 to 1974, and according to Merriam-Webster, the first known use of the term “blended family” occurred just in the middle of it, in 1972.
A line from the theme song to The Brady Bunch describes the show’s overall story: “This group must somehow form a family.” Real-life blended families often experience challenges bringing everyone together. (Plus, they have to do it without a laugh track.) This might include social and emotional challenges, such as stepsiblings getting used to one another and their new stepparent. But the legal challenges that can come with blended families can be even more difficult to navigate.
Spouses in blended families are almost certain to face legal challenges involving their children, but legal challenges may also involve a former spouse. This is amplified if there is a divorce between the spouses in a blended family.
Either party can ask the court to modify a spousal maintenance order. This could include requesting that the court increase or reduce the maintenance amount, extend the period of time maintenance is to be paid, or terminate the obligation altogether. The party asking for modification must show “a substantial and continuing change of circumstances.”
Remarriage could constitute a “change of circumstances” that merits modification of the original maintenance order, especially when stepchildren are involved. If the person receiving maintenance (the “obligee”) is the one remarrying, Missouri law states that the obligation to pay spousal maintenance terminates. If the person who is paying maintenance (the “obligor”) remarries and now has stepchildren, they might argue that they are no longer able to pay as much. A stepparent’s legal obligation to support stepchildren living in their home could be a factor in support of modifying maintenance payments in some circumstances. Alternatively, however, a new spouse or cohabitant’s income could also be considered, potentially offsetting the increase in expenses.
Similar to spousal maintenance, Missouri law bases child support obligations in part on an obligor’s ability to pay. Modification of a child support order also requires proof of changed circumstances. A new marriage that includes stepchildren could constitute a change in circumstances.
When a blended marriage with both children and stepchildren ends in divorce, child support can get very complicated. One spouse will have to pay child support to the other spouse for the children born to that marriage. If that spouse already has a child support obligation for children from an earlier relationship, that could mean they will pay less child support in both cases.
Custody and visitation is a difficult issue for almost any family, blended or otherwise. A judgment of divorce in Missouri must include a parenting plan and a visitation schedule. When a parent remarries and forms a blended family, this will disrupt the existing routine, but the parent is still bound by the terms of their divorce regarding issues like custody rights and parenting time.
A blended family divorce can add even more confusion to an already-confusing situation, especially if children were born to that marriage as well. Each parent might end up juggling overlapping parenting plans and visitation schedules.
Prenuptial agreements, or “prenups,” have a reputation for being a less-than-romantic proposition, but they can be very important. When people who have children from prior relationships get married, it can create legal confusion over various issues that might make divorce even more difficult and complicated. A prenup can help resolve some issues before they ever occur.
A legal challenge that is unique to blended families involves stepparents’ rights to see the stepchildren after a divorce. Obviously bringing together a blended family is difficult, but many stepparents form strong and lasting bonds with their stepchildren, so what happens if a stepparent and the children’s parent get divorced?
Unfortunately, stepparents have no specific rights in this regard. Missouri does not recognize any legal relationship between stepparents and stepchildren. A stepparent can adopt a stepchild, but only if the birth parent is no longer in the picture, whether that is because they are deceased or because a court has terminated their parental rights. Otherwise, a stepparent’s only legal option is to ask a court for third-party visitation rights, which a court might grant if it finds that it would be in a child’s best interest.
Mark A. Wortman, a Kansas City family lawyer, focuses his practice solely on divorce, child custody, and other family law matters. Please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.