What is stepparent adoption?

A stepparent agrees to become legally responsible for the child and the non-custodial biological parent gives up all rights and responsibilities, including the payment of child support. 

Adoption of a stepchild by a stepparent is the most common type of adoption in the United States. In those circumstances, a stepparent agrees to become legally responsible for the child and the non-custodial biological parent gives up all rights and responsibilities, including the payment of child support. As such, consent is usually required from both of the child’s biological parents (if both are alive) before the adoption can move forward. A court also has the right to terminate the rights of a biological parent if evidence can be presented of child abuse or neglect. Similarly, a court can terminate a biological parent’s rights based on abandonment if that parent is not involved in a child’s life.

It’s very important to research the laws of your state before proceeding with an adoption. As noted, in an ideal situation, a non-custodial parent will consent to the adoption of a child without opposition. However, various states offer ways to move forward with an adoption even if consent from the biological parent is withheld, or if that parent is deceased or cannot be located. For example, under California law, an absent parent’s consent is not needed if the parent has failed to support and communicate with the child for over one year. In these cases, testimony from the stepparent and the natural parent is sufficient to establish the absence of the parent. At that point, the absent parent has the burden to show reasons for the failure to support and communicate with the child. If the explanation is unsatisfactory, the court will not require consent from that biological parent and will usually allow the adoption to proceed.

Generally speaking, stepparent adoptions are not expensive and it is possible to complete the entire process without the assistance of an attorney. However, most people will elect to retain an attorney to handle the legal proceedings on their behalf. Also, certain factors can complicate an adoption and may require the assistance of a lawyer. For example, in the event an absent parent chooses to contest the termination of his/her parental rights, the proceedings can sometimes become costly if the issues involved are complicated. On the other hand, a stepparent can be found unfit to adopt the stepchild if the Department of Social Services (DSS) investigates the case and for some reason advises against the adoption (which is a rare occurrence in a stepparent adoption). In most cases, the court will heed the DSS’s recommendation and not allow the adoption to proceed. However, the stepparent may choose to argue against the recommendation and try to persuade the court to allow the adoption to move forward regardless.

As mentioned, there are many rights and responsibilities that come with the adoption of a stepchild. For example, a stepparent cannot consent to a medical procedure for a child unless the stepparent has adopted the child. Further, from a legal standpoint, adopting a child is considered permanent. Meaning that even if the parents divorce, the stepparent will nonetheless be held legally responsible for the adopted child. In addition, in the case of a divorce, the stepparent would be entitled to seek custody and visitation rights.