There is an interesting theory in New Jersey family law—that of the psychological parent. In today’s world, there are all different types of families. The “blended” family is becoming more and more common since the days of The Brady Bunch. Many moms and dads remarry, creating stepparents and stepchildren; half siblings and stepsiblings. Same-sex couples have children, where one of the couple is the biological parent and the other is not.
When a third person, not the biological mom and dad, takes an active role in the life of a child, he or she can become what is known as a “psychological parent.” Does this describe you? One of the leading cases regarding psychological parenting was V.C. v. M.J.B. In that case, a same-sex lesbian couple battled over twins born to M.J.B. during their relationship. V.C. and M.J.B. lived as a family for two years, and when the relationship ended, V.C. sought help from the court to remain in the children’s lives. The appellate court denied V.C. joint legal custody, but did send the case back to the trial court to determine a parenting plan for V.C. with the twins, finding her to be a psychological parent to them.
So, what is a psychological parent? Basically, a person can be the psychological parent of a child if he or she steps into the shoes of a traditional parent. In New Jersey, there is a four-prong test that the courts use to determine if someone is a psychological parent:
- Did the child’s biological parent encourage and foster the relationship between the child and the third-party spouse? Let’s say that a child’s biological father does not regularly see the child or participate much in his life. Mom may remarry and the child’s stepfather may fill the role of “dad” more than the child’s biological father. Mom may encourage this relationship and allow the stepfather to discipline and support the child, both financially and emotionally.
- Did the third-party asking to be seen as the psychological parent assume the role of parent in the child’s life? Did he or she financially support the child? Did he or she participate in the child’s education, help with homework, and bring the child to doctor’s appointments? If a third party is involved to a great degree in the child’s day to day life, the stronger the case that that person is a psychological parent.
- Did the child live in the same house with the spouse and the third party? Living together with the child naturally makes it easier for the third party to be more involved with raising the child; however, since all the factors are considered, it is not mandatory that the third party live with the child in the same household.
- Was the relationship between the child and the third party of significant length? Of course, there is no hard and fast rule regarding what “significant length” means and all matters are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. However, the longer the relationship between the third party and the child, the more likely it is that the court will view the third party as a psychological parent. A fleeting relationship of only a few years will obviously be viewed differently by the court than a relationship lasting for a decade.
What does it mean if you are seen to be a psychological parent? Once you have proven your case and the judge agrees that you are a psychological parent, you have the same rights and responsibilities as a biological parent or an adoptive parent. You can file for child custody, parenting time or child support. You can seek to have joint legal custody of the child, where you would be given access to their education and medical records and would participate in joint decision making for the child. As always, the courts will look at the best interests of the child when making these types of determinations. Being deemed a psychological parent does not guarantee victory in these types of cases.
It is without question that becoming a psychological parent brings with it great responsibility. You are charged with the care of the child and, even if your relationship with the biological parent ceases, your responsibility for the child does not. If you move from the house, the biological parent can certainly seek child support from you. So, consider carefully what you would like your role to be in the child’s life and evaluate how ready, willing and able you are to stand in the shoes of a parent.
If you are interested in being deemed a psychological parent of a child, or if you have any other family law issue, please contact us to schedule your initial consultation with one of our experienced family law attorneys.