Ask the Experts – Marcela Halmagean

Marcela Halmagean has distinguished herself as one of the best litigation attorneys in the Houston area. Her firm’s practice is focused on family law, and business law. She commits herself to bringing high-quality legal services to each legal sector. Here are a couple of issues addressed by some readers:

“I’m starting to dread my stepchildren’s visits. What should I do?”

The last US Census’ estimates suggest that 52 to 62 percent of all first marriages will eventually end in divorce. The same estimates also tell us that about 75 percent of the divorced parents eventually remarry, that about 43 percent of all marriages involve children from prior marriages, and that about 60 percent of all remarriages eventually end in legal divorce. As you can see, as a stepparent, you are in plenty of company. However, despite my research on the subject, I have found no statistics to clearly and neatly outline for us the emotional toll on all the parties to a step family.

Although you have not detailed for us the reasons why you dread your stepchildren’s visits, I will presume that you feel rejected and unimportant, that you feel betrayed by your spouse when it comes to decisions concerning your stepchildren; and that you feel you are not in control of your life when your stepchildren are around. If my presumptions mirror your case, your emotions are valid and common amongst stepparents.

When you fell in love with your spouse, you felt there isn’t any obstacle out there big enough for you not to be able to overcome. Reality is that a marriage certificate does not miraculously empower you to deal with your spouse’s past. The ex-spouse and the children are in no way explicitly mentioned in your vow to love and to cherish “`til death do you part.” What a marriage certificate may do however, is to bestow upon you the unofficial title of an in loco parentis or a person who may have to act and assume the duties and responsibilities of a natural parent.

But under the common law, a stepparent or an in loco parentis has no duty to financial support the stepchild. Grubb v. Sterrett, 315 F. Supp. 990 (N.D. Ind.), aff’d, 400 U.S. 922 (1970). As an in loco parentis, you have a duty to provide and care for your stepchildren while in your care and custody. Depending on their age, that means that you have a duty to feed them, clothe them, and care for them to ascertain that their health and well being aren’t being jeopardized. However, as in loco parentis, you are not required to tell them that you love them or to try to hug them. That is something that you may try to do if you feel it may help your relationship with them.

There are no legal alternatives through which you as the new spouse can control your spouse’s approach on how to raise his/her natural children. But the neither the common law nor any statute in the world will purport to control your emotions and your commitment to your spouse. If you wish to save your marriage and are dedicated to your relationship with your spouse, your best approach to your stepchildren’s visits is one of patience and tolerance. Reading about the intricate emotional waving in step families may also give you some insight into the complex web of the step family issues. Last but not least, organizations such as the Step Family Association of America (www.saafamily.org) may help you obtain support from other people involved in step families.

What law advice would you give a small business owner just starting out?

Make best friends with your lawyer! Don’t think you’re going to be able to evaluate, review, negotiate, and vet that lease agreement, purchase contract, or loan agreement by yourself. Do what you do best and allow your lawyer to do what s/he does best. Spend an hour with your lawyer working on preventive measures and be assured you will save thousands in future litigation fees. Don’t assume you can argue, negotiate, propose, and make friends with your customers and vendors. You can’t do it all, so recognize your limitations. If you don’t have a legal education, you may find that your vendor or customer does. Even when they do, they may be wise enough to consult with their lawyers first to keep emotional attachment under control. You should too. Every aspect of any business has legal implications. Your lease agreement, your employment contracts or lack thereof and your buy-sell agreements need to be reviewed by an expert in law as opposed to just you. Be smart, be quick, be wise – make and stay best friends with your lawyer and you’ll save tons on attorneys fees in the long run.

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