Stepping from stepparent to parent

Family/Kids, Relationships

Stepfamilies are more common than you might think: forty percent of all families (married couples with children) in the United States include at least one child from an adult partner’s previous relationship. New family members can find it challenging to adjust to each other, but as the years pass, stepparents and stepchildren can form a close bond. So close, in fact, that lots of stepparents want to adopt the child and become their legal parent.

So how do you make that happen? Depending on the situation, it could be relatively straightforward. Or not. Here’s what might be involved:

The decision to adopt

One of the biggest reasons to adopt your stepchild is to formalize your relationship. You and your stepchild might be very close, but if you and your spouse ever divorce or if your spouse dies, you have no automatic right to custody or visitation since you are not legally related to the child. Adopting gives you those rights and protects the relationship you’ve developed.

However, a child can only have two legal parents. If your spouse is the child’s only legal parent (the other parent is deceased, or has never been identified on a birth certificate) then you are permitted to start adoption proceedings. If the child has another legal parent, things are more complicated.

Termination of parental rights

Even if a parent is alive and named on the certificate, the other parent can terminate that parent’s rights if that parent has physically or sexually abused the child or neglected to provide food, shelter, education, or other necessary care (and of course, if you suspect the other legal parent is abusive, you should contact child and family services immediately). If child abuse or neglect is proven in court, the court can permanently terminate parental rights. But be forewarned, terminating rights for abuse or neglect is a long process that entails a lot of red tape.

The court can also terminate parental rights based on abandonment. In most states, this requires proving that the absent parent has had no contact with the child or provided any financial support for at least a year.

Indeed, in some situations, you and your spouse may have no idea where the other parent is. He or she may be long absent from your child’s life, or perhaps never had a role at all, and you don’t know how to contact him or her. In this situation, you can apply for the adoption and notify the court that you are unable to locate the missing parent. The court then allows you to notify that parent through “service by publication.” This means that you place an ad in a publication of record that the court determines. The notice refers to the parent by name and states a date by which he or she must respond.

If the other parent never contacts the court, that parent’s rights are terminated and the adoption process can proceed.

Relinquishment of parental rights

If the other legal parent agrees to relinquish his or her rights, then the child can be adopted by the stepparent. Relinquishment of rights means that the parent agrees to completely give up all rights and connection with the child and remove him or herself from the child’s life in legal terms.

This doesn’t mean that the other parent can’t have a relationship or contact with the child; however, that parent no longer has any legal rights or responsibilities regarding the child. Once the parent has relinquished legal rights, he or she no longer has a right to custody or visitation and is no longer responsible for child support.

The adoption process

When you adopt your stepchild, the process is similar to any other adoption. You and the other parent file a petition for the adoption. The court requires a background check, but a home study (when a social worker comes to your residence and writes a report about you, your family, and your home) is usually not required. You will be required to appear in court to finalize the adoption.

Generally, you can complete the entire process within a few months, depending on your court’s backlog. The drafting of the adoption petition and the required court hearings can be daunting, so it’s a good idea to work with an experienced family lawyer who can guide you through the legal process.

When you adopt your stepchild, you become his or her legal parent in all ways, with same rights and responsibilities that your spouse has. Should you divorce, you have an equal right to custody and you may also be responsible for child support. If your spouse should die, you remain the child’s legal parent.

But above all, by adopting your stepchild you demonstrate your commitment to loving and caring for him or her as you would your own biological child.