Should you adopt your stepchild?
Are you a stepparent wanting to adopt the child of your spouse? Stepparent adoptions are not that uncommon and make sense in many circumstances where you may be considered the parent in the eyes of the child, family, and others.
Stepparent adoptions may be easier than others but cannot be accomplished unless you are married to one of the birth parents. Additionally, the parental rights of the other biological parent must be terminated.
As a stepparent, there are a number of reasons for making your parenthood official:
- Your child can inherit from you more easily when you pass away.
- A new birth certificate is issued with the adoptive parent and the natural parent listed as the child’s mother and father.
- If desired, the child can assume your last name.
- You are entitled to make medical and other material decisions regarding the child’s welfare and well-being
- Solidifying the family unit can result in emotional benefits to the child, you, and the extended family.
A stepparent adoption typically involves four steps:
- Termination of Parental Rights
- The agency investigation
- Petition to adopt and order for investigation
- The hearing on the adoption
The adoption needs to proceed through a state-approved adoption agency or Department of Children and Families. Most Wisconsin counties also require that an attorney is involved.
1. Termination of Parental Rights
Before the stepparent adoption can be performed, the parental rights of the other birth parent will need to be terminated. Obviously, the easiest method is by having the parent give consent in writing. Otherwise, the termination is involuntary, and you will need an attorney to establish valid grounds for termination.
A number of potential grounds exist to voluntarily terminate parental rights:
- Failure to assume parental responsibility.
- The child has been a victim of sexual assault or incest by birth parent.
- Parent has a continuing disability that interferes with the ability to assume parental responsibility.
- Homicide or attempted homicide by the other parent.
When considering any of these grounds, the court must still decide if the termination is in the best interests of the child.
If the noncustodial birth parent is deceased, his or her rights don’t need to be terminated.
2. Agency Investigation
Once the parental rights of the other birth parent have been terminated, the licensed child welfare agency, Department of Children and Families, or other approved agency handling the adoption must conduct a review or investigation of the stepparent.
Not all private adoption agencies do stepparent adoptions, so you may need to call and inquire. For a list of the agencies that are licensed by the state of Wisconsin, you can visit the Department of Children and Familie website.
The investigation includes:
- Background check
- Psychological evaluation
- Letters of reference
- Medical records
- Inspection of the home
The interview of the stepparent takes place in-person and is typically about 2-hours long. If the child is old enough, the child’s wishes regarding the adoption are considered.
3. Petition to Adopt and Order for Investigation
Once the investigation is approved, then a stepparent can petition the court to adopt the child. A Petition for Adoption, along with other court required paperwork, must be filed.
4. The Hearing on the Adoption
Finally, there will be a hearing on the adoption. A short hearing will be scheduled. Prior to the scheduled hearing, certain documents must be submitted to the court.
Assuming the department or agency recommends the adoption, the court receives all the necessary information and legal paperwork and believes that the adoption is in the best interest of the child, you can expect the court to sign the adoption petition shortly thereafter.
An “order of adoption” will be created. This order is a document that states that the stepparent is now the legal parent of the child and will assume all the responsibilities as such. This order can also involve a name change if the child and parent wish and a chance in the birth certificate for the child
Helping the Process Go Smoothly
The process will vary depending on your family’s circumstances. To help the process go smoothly, you will want to:
- Hire a competent attorney to guide you through the process
- Submit all paperwork in a timely fashion to the investigation agency and the court
- Prepare your home for the agency inspection, including making sure your home is safe and complies with building codes
- Be patient – the process takes time, but the results are well worth it!
- Once the adoption is final, revisit your estate planning to make sure everything is in place and to see if any revisions should be made.
Stepparent adoption can have a huge impact on individuals and their families. Done well, it can transform the lives of children and families.