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Stepparent Adoptions

If you spend any time at all practicing family law, you will likely find that assisting clients with adoptions is one of the most rewarding aspects of your practice. The process is pretty simple overall, and the clients are generally very positive and happy.
The most common type of adoption that you will encounter is the stepparent/stepchild adoption. You may get new clients for this aspect of your practice, but you will also obtain numerous repeat clients who were happy with your work on their prior divorce or child support/custody agreement for unmarried parents.
Like most aspects of family law, the process for stepparent adoptions varies greatly by state. Therefore, you will need to contact your local court for the required forms and procedures. However, the basic process is the same for every jurisdiction.
At your initial client meeting, be sure to discuss the reasons for the stepparent adoption. Meet with both the natural parent having custody and the stepparent wishing to adopt the child. Discuss the involvement of the noncustodial parent and whether that parent is willing to consent to the adoption. If the noncustodial parent is thought to be agreeable, you will need to obtain his or her written consent. Also, in some states, the noncustodial parent will need to be present at the hearing, receive counseling, or talk to an attorney about his or her rights. It is important to know these requirements and discuss them with your client. If your client does not believe that the noncustodial parent will do what is necessary, the adoption will be much more complicated. The process will vary by state, but generally there will need to be a showing of noninvolvement and/or nonsupport for a specified period of time, usually one year or more.
Your client will also need to understand that any child support requirements will stop once the adoption becomes final. This is sometimes an issue that the client has not considered. However, it can also be a compelling reason for the noncustodial parent to give consent. I would suggest giving the client some time before the next meeting to consider the implications of this decision and to discuss it with the noncustodial parent, if possible.
Another area to discuss is whether the child will retain a right to inherit from the natural parent and his or her family. This will vary by state. Be sure to discuss this fully with the client because this aspect is often overlooked.
Some other areas to consider are how long the stepparent has been married to the natural parent in case your state has a minimum time requirement; how the child feels about the adoption, if the child is old enough to understand the process; if any background checks or home visits are required; and disclosure of court, counseling, and other fees in addition to your attorney fees.
Once your client understands the ramifications of this decision, the exact procedure will vary by state and locality. Some adoptions are completed in a juvenile court, while others occur in probate court. You will need to get the required forms from the applicable court, online, or from a publishing company.
Most court personnel are very helpful and knowledgeable about what is required, so don’t be afraid to ask for their help. Some very specific requirements may exist, such as how and where the stepparent needs to get fingerprinted for the background check. If you don’t ask, the police department helping your client may not know how to do this the proper way, which can cause unnecessary delays. Also, the court may maintain a list of approved counselors for a home visit, so it is important to get this information and schedule an appointment as soon as possible.
After you have submitted all of the required paperwork, you will need to wait for any home visits and background checks that may be required to be completed, which can take several weeks to a few months. Then, a hearing will be scheduled. If the noncustodial parent provided consent, the hearing is really more of a formality. It is generally a very enjoyable event to everyone, including the judge or magistrate. In my community, the magistrate will even give the child a souvenir gavel after complimenting the stepparent for his or her willingness to take on such a responsibility.
Following the hearing, make sure that your client understands that he or she will receive adoption certificates. You may want to request extra copies for the client to retain in a safe place. Also, you will need to tell your client how to apply for a new birth certificate for the child if the child’s name will be changed and to list the stepparent as his or her parent.
All in all, this is a relatively simple process, and one of the most rewarding parts of a family practice. I hope that you enjoy it!