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A parent is the mother or father of another person. This relationship can be established naturally, through childbirth. Parenthood can also be established through legal methods. One such method is through adoption, in which a person who is not the biological parent of the child gains permanent legal rights over that child. A person can also become a temporary parent for a child, through foster care. Foster parents only hold physical custody of their foster children, however, while the state retains legal custody. Foster parents can sometimes gain full legal custody through adoption, though this is not always possible. 

Another method of establishing parenthood is through marriage, in which a person who marries a person with a child becomes that child’s stepparent. However, stepparents are not considered legal parents unless they also adopt the child. Absent an adoption, a stepparent cannot legally make decisions for their stepchild and a stepchild. Further, stepchildren have no legal entitlement to a stepparent’s estate in most states, unless otherwise specified in a will.

Parents can lose their legal rights to a child, either by voluntarily relinquishing their rights or by the state severing parental rights. A parent who has lost or relinquished their rights to a child may still be called a parent but is no longer legally recognized as such.

[Last updated in July of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]