How Does Stepparent Adoption Work?

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
Stepparent Adoption
Elly Fairytale/Pexels

By now, we’ve all seen the warm and fuzzy videos on the internet showing the moment a stepparent reveals to their stepchild that they’ve officially adopted them. Or a stepchild presents their stepparent with adoption papers. Cue all the happy tears! But if you’re interested in stepparent adoption, you’ll need a bit more information about how the process works before you can enjoy your own special milestone moment. And you’re not alone in your search for more information here. In fact, according to the latest search data available to us, stepparent adoption is searched for nearly 1,900 per month.

As a stepparent, you play an integral role in your stepchild’s life. In fact, many stepparents share such a tight bond with their stepchildren that the “step” distinction isn’t even made anymore. So, it’s understandable (and lovely) that you want to make it legal. To help you in that process, we’ve compiled some of the most pertinent information you need to know.

If you’re looking for more info on other types of adoption, you can find our guides to embryo, open, closed, baby, foster care, private, adult, international, transracial, military, single parent, Jewish, Christian, and same-sex adoption.

Do you need a lawyer to adopt your stepchild?

Here’s the deal: You may not be required to have a lawyer. Like other types of adoption, stepparent adoption is governed by the state — you’ll have to find out what the laws are in your state to know if an attorney would be required in your situation.

Having said that, it’s never a bad idea to have an experienced attorney by your side through any type of inherently complex legal proceedings. When you adopt your stepchild, you are agreeing to become the legal parent of that child. Just like your spouse, you will be responsible for the child’s wellbeing. There’s a lot of weight in that and, as such, there will be legal work. If you’re not well-versed in legalese, it might be time to call in a pro.

If you do decide to tackle the process on your own (if your state allows it), start reading up on your state laws. And ask around to see if anyone you know has a friend or family member who’s already been through the process. They could be an incredible resource for both insight into legal proceedings and an understanding ear to bend.

What is the process for a stepparent adoption?

On the plus side, the adoption of stepchildren by their stepparents is the most common form of adoption. So, most states try to make the process as streamlined and accessible as possible. Here’s a general rundown of what the process might look like for you:

  1. Look into your state’s stepparent adoption laws. In addition to some states not requiring a lawyer, some may also sign off on skipping a home study. Again, we can’t underscore enough the importance of doing your homework where your state laws are concerned… and/or hiring an attorney to help you.
  2. Seek and secure consent. To kickstart the process, you’ll need to obtain consent from both parents (unless the noncustodial parent has abandoned the child) first.
  3. Contact your county’s adoption court. You must submit an adoption petition through the appropriate court in your state.
  4. Find and fill out all required legal forms. You’ll need to gather, sign, and submit any legal forms required by your state. Once those things are done, you’ll be assigned a court hearing date.
  5. Attend the preliminary hearing. Typically, both you and your stepchild will be required to appear at the hearing. Here’s the judge or magistrate’s chance to get to know the parties involved and make sure adoption is in everyone’s best interest. As such, they’ll likely ask questions of everyone involved. The court may even require your stepchild’s express consent if they’re old enough.
  6. Finalize the adoption. At the end of the preliminary hearing, you’ll receive a court date to finalize the adoption. If all goes well, that’s the point you be issued an adoption certificate.

Can a biological parent contest the adoption?

Unfortunately, the main issue that pops up in stepparent adoptions is obtaining consent from the birth parent. That is not to say you’ll have any issue with it — it’s simply a possibility with this type of proceeding.

When a stepparent adopts a stepchild, the noncustodial parent’s parental responsibilities and rights are relinquished — including the right to collect child support. Granted, many stepparents who want to adopt their stepchildren are doing so because the noncustodial parent is no longer in the picture. As such, some states have provisions to allow stepparent adoptions without noncustodial consent under certain circumstances (such as abandonment).

As a general rule of thumb, though, the consent of both biological parents is required in stepparent adoptions unless the other birth parent’s rights have been legally terminated already. (That may sound disheartening to some stepparents, but just know that it is possible. Hire an attorney and don’t give up!) This can happen if the noncustodial parent has deemed to have abandoned the child, is unfit, or if the presumed birth father is not the biological father. Here’s how they all play out:

  • Abandonment: In legal terms, abandonment means that the noncustodial parent has not communicated with the child or provided financial support for a length of time (one year in most states). Then their parental rights can be terminated.
  • Unfit: If you have cause to show that the other birth parent is unfit, many state courts will follow suit by conducting a fitness hearing. During the hearing, the state and court will deem the parent as unfit if they have been abusive, neglectful, have failed to visit, have a substance abuse problem, or are incarcerated.
  • Not the father: In all states, if you can prove that the presumed father of the child is not actually the father (perhaps if he married a woman after the birth of the child and was named as the father on a birth certificate). If it can be shown that the presumed father is not the actual father then there is no need to prove unfitness or abandonment and the custodial parent wouldn’t need his consent for stepfather adoption.

How long does it take for a stepparent to adopt a child?

The length of time required for a stepparent adoption — you guessed it! — varies by state. In fact, some states stipulate that a stepparent has to have been married to and living with the child’s parent for at least a year before petitioning to adopt the child. Plus, you’ll need to factor in the time it takes to get consent from the non-custodial parent (if necessary).

How much does adoption of a stepchild cost?

Con? You will have to spend some money to go through with a stepparent adoption. You have to consider legal fees and, if you hired one, the cost of your attorney. Pro? Stepparent adoption is typically much less expensive than other types of adoption. Super-pro? Although it may set you back a couple thousand dollars, you can drop that “step” qualifier from “parent” when all is said and done.

Is there anything else to know about stepparent adoption?

Once the adoption is finalized, you’ll need to apply for a new birth certificate for your child. If you or they want to change their last name, now is the time to do so. Congrats!

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