According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2010 an estimated 4.3 million children or 4.7 percent of children under 18 years of age lived in a household with a stepparent. Stepparent adoptions are among the most common adoption processes in the United States and are far less complicated than other types of adoption. If you are thinking about pursuing a stepparent adoption, the following are points to consider as part of your planning process and a breakdown of the basic steps for pursuing a stepparent adoption.

“Family” is such a simplistic word yet means many things to different people. Everyone has their own way of defining family. Especially as today’s values and beliefs of what constitutes a family expands to include not just parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. but also stepparents, step-siblings, half-siblings, and even friends and pets. More, now than ever, we are redefining the meaning of family to include a bigger picture of creating a family environment in which people feel loved, supported, nurtured, and accepted.

Preparing for a Stepparent Adoption

Stepfamilies are generally larger than a “natural” family, especially if there are divorces and subsequent remarriages factored in. With divorces and remarriage rates rising, stepparenting has become more common, and there are several factors that come into play when considering whether a stepparent adoption should take place. Some of the more common reasons a blended family may pursue a stepparent adoption include the following:

– A desire to create permanency or show commitment to the new “family.”

– Wanting to change a child’s last name after mother remarries.

– Child and stepparent have a good relationship, and adoption is a symbolic way to solidify this commitment to the parent/child bond.

– Abandonment or death of the noncustodial biological parent.

– Medical or financial benefits including being able to provide health insurance and ensuring the child has the same inheritance rights as any biological children.

– Child will be eligible to receive social security benefits in the event something happens to the stepparent.

The Complete Adoption Book lists some additional matters that should be taken into consideration while contemplating adoption and before taking steps to move forward.

– Regardless of whether the noncustodial parent is alive, deceased, actively a part of the child’s life, or has chosen for one reason or another to not be a part of the child’s life, the child may feel disloyal to his or her biological parent by choosing to be adopted by a stepparent. The idea of loyalty and attachment, even if there is no current relationship with the noncustodial parent, may be difficult to overcome and should be talked through to help the child express and feel okay with the decision.

– Depending on the situation and reasons for seeking a stepparent adoption, the noncustodial parent could try and interfere or contest an adoption. Ultimately, if you are having conversations about terminating one person’s parental rights so another can gain them, it is being done with the child’s best interests in mind. In the best-case scenario, a stepparent adoption takes place and the noncustodial parent remains a part of their child’s life; this may include visitation and maintaining a relationship with the child. When this is not possible and life factors may make it difficult for all to see this as a positive move forward for the child now and in the future, cooperation may be limited.

– There are financial things to consider as well. If a noncustodial parent is paying child support, this would cease when a stepparent legally adopts their stepchild. Likewise, in the event that the remarriage ends in divorce and the stepparent has adopted one or more of their stepchildren, there is a good probability that you could be responsible for making child support payments.

The Legal Process of Stepparent Adoption

A stepparent adoption is a permanent legal process. Understanding the steps and information needed can make the process of adoption smoother. Please keep in mind that this is meant as a generic step-by-step process of adoption. The laws and steps may change according to the state and county you live in. The following is not intended as legal advice but a general guideline.

In preparation for filing a petition of adoption, you will need to gather some basic paperwork. Documents that you will want to have readily available include the child’s original birth certificate, copies of a current marriage license, divorce decree if biological parents were married and, in the event that the noncustodial parent is deceased, a copy of his or her death certificate.

If the noncustodial parent is living, you must have the consent of both biological parents. If the other biological parent’s parental rights have previously been terminated, then no additional consents are needed. Obtaining consent may not always be possible as in the case of abandonment. If the noncustodial parent has not financially provided for the child, paid child support, and has not actively been a physical presence in the child’s life, the other parent can petition for termination of parental rights. Each state has its own requirements for what constitutes abandonment and how much time must have passed without contact. Consult with a trusted family lawyer familiar with your state laws.

Other circumstances such as abuse, neglect, addiction, or incarceration may fall into the category of “unfit.” The courts can ultimately investigate and determine if it is within the best interest of the children to maintain parental rights. Should it be decided that it is not best for the child, the court may involuntarily terminate parental rights.

Paternity Issues

If there is reason to believe that the estranged parent is not the biological parent, check with your state law to determine what is necessary to prove that the parent listed on the child’s birth certificate is not the biological parent.

How Do You Go about Locating an Absent Parent? 

If you have lost contact with the noncustodial biological parent and need to move forward with petitioning the court for adoption, make every effort possible to locate and talk to the estranged biological parent. Reach out to known family members and friends, take advantage of social media and the Internet to track down last known addresses and phone numbers. If you are seeking an adoption without written consent from the noncustodial parent, you will want to show the judge that you have made every possible effort to locate this person.

1. Know your state laws.

What this process looks like varies from state to state, but in general, the process is easier than completing a domestic or international, non-stepparent adoption. For example, in most cases, the need to have a home study completed is not necessary. Some states however require the biological and stepparent to be married for a specific length of time before beginning the adoption process. Or the biological parent must have both physical and legal custody with the child living with you for at least half of the calendar year. A family law or adoption attorney can answer any relevant time requirement questions.

2. Contact your county court that handles adoptions.

A petition to adopt must be submitted to a judge in the appropriate court within your state. Depending on your state laws, this could be handled in a juvenile court, family, or surrogacy court. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, the court clerk or other staff should be able to provide you with basic information regarding stepparent adoptions and may also provide a packet which includes information on whether you will need to hire a lawyer or can represent yourself and point you in the direction of the legal forms you will need to download and complete.

3. Complete and submit legal forms.

If you are required to or choose to hire an attorney to help with the adoption process and proceedings, they will know what forms and documentation are needed and will likely help you complete them and send them into the court. If you are not using legal assistance, to avoid a setback or potential problems, it is advisable to speak with the court clerk’s office or check with a legal aid office to ensure the forms you are completing are accurate and will be accepted by the court system. If you have not been able to obtain legal consent from the noncustodial parent, it may be worthwhile to hire a legal consultant to help prepare and submit the adoption petition and subsequent paperwork.

4. Attend a court hearing.

A preliminary court hearing provides the judge an opportunity to review your documents and make a determination whether additional information is needed to proceed. You can expect that you, the stepparent and your child, will need to attend this hearing. The judge may ask questions and possibly request that criminal background checks be obtained.

5. Await finalization.

During the preliminary hearing, the judge may provide you with a court date to process and finalize the adoption, or you may get this information through your adoption attorney. The finalization hearing can take place anywhere from two to six months after the preliminary hearing. During this much-anticipated court hearing, the parent seeking to adopt may be asked to state why he or she wants to adopt and testify that he or she is acting in the best interest of the child. Depending on the age of the child, the judge may question him/her to make sure that this is also what the child wants. The judge will issue an adoption certificate naming the stepparent as the legal parent. If a name change was requested, the adoption certificate should include the child’s new last name.

6. Apply for a new birth certificate.

Once you have your final adoption order with your child’s new name listed, you will want to file for a new birth certificate which will have the new name and have the stepparent listed as the parent. A new and updated birth certificate will be needed to update other records related to school, medical records, and other legal documents as your child grows.

Changing Rules and Roles

When a stepparent wishes to adopt a child, it should be a family decision. Speaking with a professional counselor or social worker is a good way to provide the child and other family members with age-appropriate information on the adoption and hearing process as well as allowing an opportunity to express their feelings. As mentioned earlier, a child may feel some sort of ambivalence or guilt when she thinks of her biological parent(s) and the circumstances that parental rights are being terminated.

At one point or other, questions may come up about the child’s biological parent. This is particularly true as a child matures and develops more insight about life. Questions such as “Where is my biological parent?” “Do they still love me?” “If I am adopted by my stepparent, will I ever get to see my biological parent again?” “What about my biological grandparents–will it mean I am no longer a part of their family too?” The child needs a safe space to know that it is okay to feel one way or another and be able to talk with the family about it.

The process of stepparent adoption is legally binding, but a judge’s signature does not automatically change parenting roles and rules around “my children, your children.” This time period can be both stressful and exciting. It is also a great time for an honest and open conversation about parenting expectations as you move from a blended family into a more cohesive family where both parents have an equal say in how children will be raised.

If your stepchild is older and in favor of the adoption, then it is likely that you already have a positive, trusting relationship. For younger children, building trust and creating a positive connection may take more time and a lot of understanding. There may be some reluctance as the younger child(ren) adjust to this new family dynamic filled with different family values, traditions, and people.