When two families join together in marriage, it can take some time for family members to really accept and care for one another. After time, however, many stepfamilies come to love one another as if they were related by blood. So what happens if that marriage ends in divorce and the stepfamily is divided? If they are no longer bound by either legal or biological ties, what holds formerly-close stepbrothers, stepsisters and other stepfamily members together?

Although the answer to that question varies from case to case, one thing is certain: the law offers no protection in stepfamily situations. To say it another way, stepparents have no legal claim to their former stepchildren after a divorce, and whether a former stepparent will have continued contact with that child is completely up to the child's biological parent. For stepparents who grew close to their spouse's children during their marriage, this can be an extremely difficult thing to come to terms with.

Other than that clear legal rule, however, there are no real guidelines for whether and how to maintain a relationship with stepfamily members after divorce. Nor is there much research and quantifiable data about how many people experience this issue and their methods of dealing with it.

In one recent study, researchers interviewed about 30 people between the ages of 18 and 32, all of whom had former stepparents. The researchers concluded that former step-relatives fell into three categories. The first is "never claimed," which includes people who never embraced their stepparent as a family member. The second is "unclaimed," which includes people who regarded their stepparent as a parental figure during the marriage but not after the divorce. The final is "claimed," which includes people who continue to regard their former stepparent as a parent even though the marriage has ended.

If you have former step-family members, what is your relationship with them? How did you handle the transition?

Source: New York Times, "When Branches Tangle in a Stepfamily Tree," Elissa Gootman, Oct. 3, 2012