A stepparent adoption is an adoption in which the spouse of one of the child’s parents adopts the child legally. Should you adopt your stepchild?
The adoption of a stepchild who is a minor (under the age of 18) requires that the parental rights of the non-custodial parent be terminated. In the cases of stepparent adoption, typically this is a voluntary termination on the part of one of the biological parents to allow the stepparent to adopt. There can be occasions when the termination of rights is involuntary, but that would typically require charges of neglect, abandonment, or abuse to have been filed against the parent. You may also be able to terminate a parent’s rights by proving they are not the biological parent of the child, even though they had been named as such.
The first thing to consider when thinking about adopting a stepchild is whether or not you are ready to take lifelong responsibility for the child. If you proceed with adoption, even if the marriage ends in divorce, you are legally the child’s parent and will be held legally responsible for their care. This could mean supporting and paying for a portion of their expenses until adulthood. If you feel strongly that you are willing to make that commitment, you may want to see if you can pursue an adoption. However, if you would be unwilling to continue the parent/child relationship if the marriage were to fail, you should not be considering adoption. The adoption does not terminate if the marriage ends in divorce. Just like biological children, adopted children will still be your legal responsibility. If placement is shared, you would still have periods of time when the child would reside with you, and you would still be held responsible for half of the child’s financial needs as well. The adoption would mean that you are tied to your spouse for life, simply because you will share a child. If there is any indication that the marriage is not solid, or if you would be concerned with having permanent bonds, you may not want to pursue adoption. Most people don’t get married with the intent of divorcing, however, we all know statistically that about half of all marriages end in divorce. Therefore, the possibility ought to be considered when thinking about adopting a stepchild.
If you are certain you would want to pursue adoption, it would be important to discuss it with both biological parents. You will need permission to adopt from your spouse, and you will need the other parent to agree to terminate their rights and allow the adoption to proceed.
Why would a parent voluntarily terminate rights to their child?
In some cases, there is little to no relationship between the parent and child. In these cases, often the biological parent can recognize the lack of connection and can understand that the stepparent has taken on the parenting role, and is willing to allow them to adopt and become the legal parent. When rights are terminated, it also frees the biological parent from any legal responsibilities, including the support of the child.
While it sounds harsh, money can be a motivating factor in these situations. If a biological parent is not pursuing a parental relationship but is still court-ordered to financially support the child, they may be inclined to allow another to take on that responsibility.
In some cases, both biological parents have moved on to new relationships and do not want to feel tied to each other anymore. If the child is young, a parent may choose to allow the parents who are raising the child (one biological and one as the stepparent) to become the legal parents together. Co-parenting can be difficult. If a relationship didn’t work out, the responsibility of co-parenting can be an overwhelming task. When others enter the equation, like new spouses, it can get even more complicated. In these cases, some feel strongly that in order to avoid conflict between adults, it may be better to allow a stepparent adoption.
Other times, one parent may have moved, and therefore, does not have the opportunity to be a frequent presence in the life of the child due to distance. In these cases, a voluntary termination may seem like the right choice in order to give the child two parents that can be present in their life, rather than a split family situation.
Some parents, regardless of the role they have with the child, may be unwilling to terminate rights voluntarily. In this situation, if the parent is not unfit, abusive, or has not abandoned the child, they will maintain their rights and an adoption by the stepparent is not an option while the child is a minor. However, if the child really wants to be adopted by a stepparent, after the age of 18, they may consent to their own adoption and do not need parental permission. So if proceeding with a stepparent adoption is something that the child and stepparent really want to pursue, it can be done after age 18.
What is the motivation to adopt a stepchild? You likely already have a good bond if you are all living together in a household. You are likely already participating in parenting the child. Why would adoption be necessary?
In some cases, if the biological parent who is the stepparent’s spouse is not always available, a stepparent may want to be able to adopt for emergency situations. If a child is injured and neither biological parent is readily available, there may be some delay to being able to get care. For instance, if the spouse is deployed in the military, and the other biological parent is not involved in the child’s daily life, a stepparent would be motivated to adopt in order to be able to make legal decisions for the child in their spouse’s absence.
Adopting the stepchild is also beneficial if you plan to leave them any inheritance. Having a legal relationship makes it much easier to pass on inheritance to another person.
In my opinion, there is a lot to consider when deciding if you should proceed with a stepchild adoption. Just because you married a child’s biological parent does not mean you must take on the legal responsibility of caring for their children. It goes without saying that you will become a part of the family. However, this doesn’t mean you need to take on all the legal aspects of the relationship.
In my own family, we have a stepparent adoption. My husband legally adopted our daughter, who I birthed prior to our relationship. I began a relationship with my husband when my daughter was very young, and she does not remember a time when he wasn’t a part of our family. He has been a part of her life daily since she was about 2 years old.
Our daughter did have a relationship with her biological father as well. It wasn’t always the best relationship, and she didn’t spend enough time with him to view him as a parent, even though he technically was. As she grew older, she decided she wanted to be adopted by her stepdad since he did the work of a father, and she felt he was the person who she wanted to be legally able to make decisions with me.
Because her biological father was unwilling to terminate his rights, we pursued the legal stepparent adoption after she turned 18 years old and did not need parental consent.
For our family, this was the right thing to do.
I have seen cases where a stepparent rushes to adopt a stepchild, and it doesn’t end well. I have seen instances of a short-lived marriage, where the stepparent legally adopted the child. Of course, nobody goes into these situations thinking they will end badly. However, as humans, we can make mistakes.
In one particular case, the marriage ended shortly after the adoption became legal (within six months). The biological father was not a part of the picture and hadn’t been since the child was born. The mother wanted her husband to immediately pursue a legal adoption so that her son had a legal father involved in his life. It seemed like a good decision. However, the marriage quickly fell apart. And, because the child was legally adopted, her now ex-husband has legal rights and responsibilities to the child. Not only does he have the right to share placement of the child, he wants to do so. She doesn’t feel that he ought to have the right to share placement since he has only been around for a total of two years of his eight years of life. However, when she consented to allow him to adopt, she gave him legal rights to help raise the child. He wants to help parent, even though they are no longer together, as well as help financially to support the child.
This is one of those awkward situations where these two people, had the adoption not occurred, would likely not be involved with each other post-divorce. The possibility of divorce is something they hadn’t considered or spoken about prior to adoption. There had been no discussion on what the expectations would be should the marriage not last. However, in this case, the adoptive father is trying to do the right thing in being a responsible parent, even if the responsibility is a bit new to him. The mother is regretting her decision to allow the adoption, as she does not want to split time with her child with her ex-husband.
These are the types of things that need to be considered when deciding if stepparent adoption is the right thing for your family.
One perk of stepparent adoption is that it is usually a very affordable process. While domestic and international adoption can cost tens of thousands of dollars, a stepparent adoption can usually be done for just a few hundred dollars. In some areas, these adoptions are even possible without hiring attorneys or paying someone to fill out and file paperwork. Some areas allow parents to file forms themselves, many of which can be found online.
The stepparent adoption process is also typically far less time consuming than other forms of adoption. While domestic, international, and foster care adoptions can take years to finalize, a stepparent adoption can usually be completed in a few short months.
Adoption should not be done on a whim or as an expectation of entering a marriage. If you are not committed to raising this child for their lifetime, you should not consider adoption. If you are not willing to co-parent with your spouse should your relationship fail, you should not consider adoption. If you are not willing to financially provide for the child, you should not consider adoption.
A stepparent is still able to co-parent with their spouse and the other parent, if they are involved, without adopting the child. Of course, this is dependent on the individuals involved, and the dynamics of the relationships. However, this would be an ideal situation to have all the adults involved be able to work on parenting together. However, there are some instances when there is a bigger benefit to having legal rights to make decisions. Stepparents are not able to sign legal forms for their stepchildren. Only legal parents are able to do so. This means that a stepparent is unable to sign for a child to get a driver’s license, for instance.
If you are hoping to adopt your stepchild, be sure you have considered all the possibilities and outcomes. Be sure to discuss all of the potential ways this adoption could change the relationship you have with the child and with your spouse. Be sure that all parties involved, including the child (if they are able to understand what adoption is), want to take this legal step to unite as a family. Never feel pressured to enter into this lifelong commitment. While this type of adoption may often be downplayed in importance, it is still a very big commitment and legal responsibility.