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In the Event of Death: Lesbian Families' Plans to Preserve Stepparent–Child Relationships

Family Relations / Family Relations Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies

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Objective This study explores the plans women in same‐sex stepfamilies make to preserve stepparent–child relationships in the event of an origin parent's death. Background The incomplete institutionalization of stepparent–child relationships leaves them legally vulnerable, and this vulnerability may be compounded for lesbian stepparent families given that existing policies (such as second‐parent or joint adoption) are not accessible to them. Method This study is based on in‐depth phone interviews with 39 birth, adoptive, and stepparents residing in 17 states. All were raising children from previous relationships and did so for at least one year before study participation. Some grounded theory strategies were adopted to code the transcribed data. Results Findings indicate that three approaches were used: (a) relying solely and informally on family members, (b) outlining in‐the‐event‐of‐death wishes in wills for extended family to follow, and (c) assuming that the children were old enough to choose for themselves. Conclusion Findings suggest that existing family policies leave stepparent–child relationships legally vulnerable in the event of the origin parent's death. Implications The three plans participants articulated may promote division rather than unify a support network for children at a time when they are most needing stability. Family life educators can play a key role in mitigating these divisions by teaching families tools to foster harmonious coparenting relationships among multiple parents.