Family Law

Stepparent Adoptions: The Process

By Melissa Heinig, Attorney
Learn more about stepparent adoption.

What Is a Stepparent Adoption?

Stepparent adoption involves one spouse adopting the other spouse's biological (or legal) child. Stepparent adoption is the most common type of adoption and is available to all legally-married couples in all 50 states and D.C.. Each state has its own requirements for this type of adoption, so if you have questions, be sure to check with a local adoption attorney.

There are typically three parents involved in every stepparent adoption: two biological (or legal) parents and the stepparent. The following provides an example of a common scenario involving stepparent adoption: A child's custodial parent remarries, and after some time together as a family unit, the custodial parent's new spouse wishes to adopt the child. Meanwhile, the noncustodial parent has been absent or is an unfit parent due to some extreme conduct, such as abuse or neglect. Under these circumstances, having the stepparent adopt the child may be in the child's best interests. A stepparent adoption would give the child a sense of family, of having two stable and loving parents, and even taking on the stepparent's last name, if applicable.

What Are the Requirements for Stepparent Adoption?

Termination of Parental Rights

The first step to every stepparent adoption is to terminate the other biological or legal parent’s rights. If the other parent agrees to relinquish all rights to the child, the process will move faster. However, a voluntary termination of parental rights can be extremely emotional and complicated. Biological parents are often hesitant to voluntarily terminate their parental rights because doing so means giving up the ability to raise or see the child: in most cases, it means no future visitation, telephone calls, or any sort of relationship with the child.

If the parent refuses to consent, the couple requesting the adoption will need to request a court hearing and ask a judge to terminate the other parent’s rights. A court will only terminate parental rights if it finds the other parent abandoned, abused, or neglected the child. The noncustodial parent will receive a court appointed attorney and a court hearing before a judge will make this decision.

Once parental rights are terminated—either by agreement or a court order—the couple can proceed with the adoption by completing the proper application and paying the required court fees.

Home Study

In some states, once an adoption petition is filed, a court may order a mandatory home study, which is an evaluation to make sure the stepparent's home is suitable for the child. A court representative will complete the study and send a confidential report to the court with a recommendation. The couple requesting the adoption must pay any fees associated with this study. The home study may include:

  • inspection of the physical home
  • a psychological evaluation of the parents
  • social and criminal record inspections, and
  • medical and financial assessment of the couple.

In many states, courts will waive the home study requirement for stepparent adoptions, because the child is already living with a biological or legal parent and the proposed stepparent. If the court doesn’t require a home study, the adoption process may be shorter and less expensive.

When the adoption petition and home study (if any) are complete, the court will schedule a final adoption hearing to either approve or deny the request. If the court grants the petition, a judge will issue an adoption certificate, which will list the child’s new name (if requested) and identify the stepparent as the child’s legal parent. The couple will be able to apply for a new birth certificate for the child through the state’s vital records department. The new birth certificate will list both parents as legal parents and will also include the child’s new name, if necessary.

What Happens After an Adoption?

Once you complete a stepparent adoption, you will have the same rights and responsibilities to your child as your spouse— the child's biological or legal parent. Adoption grants the stepparent all the rights and responsibilities of a legal parent, including the ability to make decisions about the child's welfare and the responsibility of providing the child with financial support.

Adoption is permanent—it can’t be cancelled or reversed because of a divorce or separation. When a stepparent adoption is finalized, if a biological parent dies, the child will stay with the stepparent—who is now the other legal parent. In situations where there is no stepparent adoption, if a custodial parent dies, a judge will likely grant custody to the non-custodial biological parent, unless that parent is unfit—court’s don’t normally recognize the relationship between a stepparent and child absent a formal adoption.

Next Steps

If you have questions about adopting your stepchild, contact a local adoption attorney to determine if stepparent adoption is right for you and your family. Adoption laws vary by state, and hiring an experienced attorney in your area can help you understand the local requirements.

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