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The "third parties" who inspired this symposium are categories of adults who form de facto family ties with children to whom they do not stand in the relationship of legal parent. In the eyes of the law, the status of parenthood is generally restricted to biological and adoptive parents. Within this frame of reference, stepparents constitute a major category of "third parties" who develop relationships with their stepchildren but are not regarded as legal parents.

In spite of the long history of stepfamily issues in the legal arena, and the increased demand for regulation in recent decades, little progress has been made in establishing a clear or consistent legal definition of the stepparent status. The state of the law in this area and the reasons for the slow development of a legal status for stepparents are discussed at length in Parts III through VI of this article. Prior to that discussion, Part II presents demographic information about stepfamilies in the United States, derived from the 2000 census, and explores the meaning of the term "stepparent" in the census survey and in the law.