The word "adoption" often brings to mind a childless couple taking in and raising to adulthood a baby who is not their biological own. Many adoptions do fall into this category, but most do not. Stepparent adoption is the most common form of adoption in the U.S. Two people meet, fall madly in love and conceive a child. Their relationship goes south and mom — or dad, depending on who gets custody — eventually moves on and remarries.
The child is absorbed into the nuclear family of mom or dad and a stepparent, and maybe even a step-sibling or two or three.
In many families, the next natural step is for the stepparent to legally adopt his stepchild, granting him full parental rights and responsibilities and affording the child some rights, too, such as to inherit from him. But this doesn't happen with a snap of the fingers. It's a somewhat intricate and sometimes arduous process, and crucial legal steps must be followed.
Understand the Stepparent Adoption Laws in Your State
Each state's laws can vary somewhat on stepparent adoptions, so it's a good idea to understand what they are before you get started. At least consult with an attorney at the beginning, even if you ultimately decide to forge ahead on your own rather than hire the lawyer to represent you throughout the entire process.
Gain Consent From the Non-Custodial Parent
Both birth parents must typically consent to relinquish their parental rights before an adoption can take place.
In a stepparent adoption, this means that both the custodial remarried parent and her non-custodial ex must consent to the adoption. The non-custodial parent's rights must be legally terminated for the adoption to move forward.
If the non-custodial parent objects, state laws may prevent the adoption from taking place except under some limited circumstances.
The court may terminate the non-custodial parent's rights involuntarily and without his consent if he's determined to be unfit or if he has abandoned the child, such as by not seeing her or paying child support for an extended period of time. Exceptions may also be made if the non-custodial parent can't be located despite diligent efforts.
Depending on the age of the child, her consent may be necessary as well, so you might want to discuss the adoption with your child in advance if she's mature enough to understand what's going on. Nearly all states require that minors must give their consent if they're over a certain age — 14 in some states, but as young as 10 in others.
File the Necessary Paperwork With the Court
Most county courthouses offer information packets for all types of civil proceedings, including forms for pleadings — the legal papers that must be filed. Stop by your local courthouse and ask for a packet for stepparent adoption. If a packet isn't available, ask if your state allows you to represent yourself in court or if you must retain an attorney. Find out where you can get the proper forms if you're allowed to represent yourself, then complete them, sign them and file them with the court.
Is a Home Study Required?
Most adoptions require a home study of prospective adoptive parents — an evaluation by a court-appointed social worker to provide an assessment of your home, your family, your finances and even your health. This requirement is often waived for stepparent adoptions because the child is already in the legal custody of one biological parent but check with the court to be sure. If a home study is necessary, sign up for one right away. The study can take some time to complete.
Attend a Court Hearing
When you file your adoption paperwork with the court, you should receive a date for a preliminary hearing or, depending on your state, you may receive notification a short time later by mail. You must attend this hearing if it's required, and your child may be required to appear as well.
The judge will ask some questions of all of you to get a full understanding of your situation.
Many states waive this preliminary hearing in stepparent adoptions. If this is the case, you'll be immediately scheduled for a final hearing instead. Assuming your stepparent adoption is approved, the court will issue a certificate or order of adoption and the stepparent will legally become the parent of the child.
Don't Forget the Birth Certificate
You'll have to apply to your state's vital records department for a new birth certificate after the adoption is final, replacing the non-custodial parent's name with the new parent's name.