Just as divorce is a fact of life in the United States, so increasingly is stepparent adoption. According to the Stepfamily Foundation and its analysis of U.S. Census Bureau statistics, some 1,300 new stepfamilies are forming every day.
More than 50 percent of families in the U.S. are remarried or re-coupled, the foundation states.
But how long does it take for a couple with children from a previous marriage or relationship to become a happy, blended family? For families that want to share the legal and loving responsibilities of raising children from previous relationships, stepparent adoption can be the answer.
Besides the obvious emotions that come with stepparent adoption, there are several legal hurdles that must be navigated.
Here’s How to Become an Adoptive Parent to Your Spouse’s Children with a Stepparent Adoption
Watch Out for Pitfalls
Not having the cooperation of the biological parent is the biggest pitfall. When this happens, a couple seeking a stepparent adoption must make the decision whether it is worth it to go to court and incur significant legal expense through litigation. In this situation, the couple will have to prove that the biological parent’s rights should be terminated. This can be a challenging process with a high legal standard.
The easier scenario is when the biological parent who doesn’t live with or have any real relationship with the child consents to surrendering his or her parental rights. Even though this outcome is more common, there is still a lot of time, effort and paperwork to submit. A common situation where consent is given involves a woman who has gotten remarried but has a child who was born out of wedlock from a previous relationship.
The biological father has never taken any action to make the relationship with the child legal. He may not be paying child support or even visit with the child. The mother’s new spouse has taken on the role of father, celebrating birthdays and holidays, and he wants to adopt the child. This is a situation where the biological father may willingly relinquish his paternal rights.
The key to securing a successful stepparent adoption with the least conflict revolves around informed consent. All the parties involved need to understand what they are giving up and what responsibilities they are assuming.
The biological father needs to understand he is surrendering his rights to the child and that it is a complete and full surrender in which he cannot come back later to say he changed his mind. When those rights are terminated – including custody and visitation rights – parental obligations such as child support are also ended.
Not only is one parent giving up all parental rights to the child, the stepparent is taking on responsibilities and getting rights that will have long-term ramifications. Taken a step further, if a mother who has a child gets remarried and wants her new husband to adopt her child, she needs to understand that she is giving her new spouse parental rights to her child. In the event of a divorce, he would be entitled to custodial and visitation rights. The stepparent must realize that the child becomes his.
Be Prepared for Your Initial Meeting with a Family Law Attorney
When a couple first consults an attorney to complete a stepparent adoption, the lawyer will ask whether he or she could contact the non-custodial biological parent to get his or her consent to end his or her paternal rights. The attorney would explain that he or she represents the couple and not the non-custodial biological parent and also explains that he or she has the right to hire his or her own attorney.
Once that biological parent decides to give up those rights, there are two main documents that he or she needs to sign. The first is called the “acknowledgement of surrender of rights.” This document states that the parent understands that he or she is giving up those parental rights. The second document is called a “surrender and final release for adoption” in which the parent is actually giving up those rights.
However, the biological parent gets time to think about the decision to give up parental rights. Under state law, that parent is allotted several days to revoke that decision to give up his or her parental rights. These time frames vary from state to state.
Separately, the prospective stepparent must file court papers declaring that he or she is deemed financially, mentally and emotionally able to adopt. The biological parent seeking to have his or her partner adopt the child also must file court papers consenting to the adoption.
Finally, depending on the state, the biological parent who is surrendering parental rights may not have to show up to the court proceeding if all the court papers giving up those rights are properly prepared under oath. Only the prospective stepparent and spouse who is the other biological parent must be at the court proceeding. The vast majority of adoptions are done behind closed chambers and are not public, with the court file being sealed.
Gather Required Documents and Facts
A number of documents must be provided to the court. In the case of a woman with a child who has remarried and the new husband is seeking to adopt, the documents required will be:
- The adoptive parent’s driver’s license and birth certificate;
- The marriage license;
- The child’s birth certificate; and
- Information about the background of the birth family.
In addition, the couple will have to provide certain facts including:
- The dates of birth, Social Security numbers, places of birth and current address for the adoptive parent, mother and child;
- The biological father’s address, phone number, date of birth and email address;
- The marital status at the time of the child’s birth, including whether there was an order of child support and whether the biological father provided support during pregnancy, hospitalization, birth and medical care; and
- A background investigation of the prospective adoptive parent, which often includes fingerprinting – all states have laws or regulations addressing these requirements.
Once the judge gives the final order of adoption, the process doesn’t end there. New documents for the adopted child will be needed such as a new birth certificate that will have the child’s new name, if changed, and list the stepparent as his or her parent as well as a new Social Security card. The stepparent will need to notify any tax preparers that the adoption was finalized and see whether his or her last will and testament should be updated as well.
There are many advantages to stepparent adoption. Stepparents can give their adopted children the same inheritance and legal rights, such as medical insurance coverage, as the biological children in the family. Through adoption, the stepparent gains the right to consent in emergencies. All the time and effort with a family law attorney is worth it in the end. The emotional and loving bond that comes from forming a new and happy, blended family is peace of mind at the end of the day.
Amy Saul Mollengarden is a partner at Boyd Collar Nolen Tuggle & Roddenbery, where she handles all types of family law matters, with a focus on complex divorce and custody litigation. She also handles step-parent adoptions. www.bcntrlaw.com