Ask AF: How Does Stepparent Adoption Work?

Your new spouse may practically be a parent to your child, but what does the law have to say about it? Learn the ins and outs of stepparent adoption from a legal expert.

Q:  I recently remarried, and my husband would like to adopt my son. Is this possible?

A: Yes, stepparent adoptions are common. Each state has its own procedure to allow a stepparent to adopt a spouse’s children. Most states require that the stepparent and child to be adopted form a parent-child relationship by having lived together for a period of time before adoption. Some states impose a waiting period after the marriage, to ensure that the relationship is stable, before a stepparent adoption can be approved. (In some states the couple must be legally married; other states don’t require marriage.) Often a home study or stepparent screening is required to provide the court with information about the stepparent and a recommendation as to whether the adoption is in the child’s best interest. Studies and screenings are typically performed by a licensed adoption or family service agency, or by a county or state human services office.

In addition, the child’s biological parent must agree to his or her spouse’s adoption of the child. In many states, a child who has reached a certain age—usually 12 to 14—must also consent before the court may order an adoption by his or her stepparent.

Before the court can approve a stepparent adoption, the parental rights of the non-custodial biological parent must be terminated, either by consent to the adoption or through involuntary termination. A parent who wishes to consent to the adoption by his or her child’s stepparent may sign a consent or relinquishment, which the adopting stepparent presents to the court. In some states, a court proceeding is needed to terminate the biological parents parental rights; in other states, the court proceeds directly to the adoption. A judge determines whether the adoption is in the child’s best interest and, if so, orders the adoption. Once the adoption order is entered, the child’s birth certificate is amended to show the stepparent as the child’s legal parent.

When a Non-Custodial Parent Objects

Is there any way a stepparent can adopt a child when the non-custodial parent refuses to relinquish parental rights? If grounds exist for involuntary termination of parental rights, the court can order a stepparent adoption. Generally, such grounds include abandonment of the child, dereliction of parental responsibility, failure to support, and child abuse. To follow this course, the stepparent files a petition for adoption or for the termination of parental rights, depending on the requirements of the particular state. Unless there is a specific exception in the state statutes, the biological parent must be notified of such proceedings, which involve a trial before a judge or, in at least one state, a trial by jury.

At the proceeding, the stepparent and spouse must be prepared to back up their petition to terminate parental rights. Documentation may include testimony from witnesses to abuse, records showing nonpayment of parental support, or a calendar showing that the parent failed to show up for scheduled visits. If the court finds the evidence compelling, the stepparent adoption can take place.

If the whereabouts of the biological parent are unknown and can’t be ascertained despite reasonable effort—such as contacting friends and relatives—many states allow notice to be served with an item in the legal notices section of the parent’s local newspaper. If the biological parent fails to respond to the notice, the court may find him or her in default and proceed with the termination of parental rights.

It is important to consult with an attorney who can advise you on the laws of your state early in the process for the best chance of a successful outcome. You can find experienced attorneys at

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Adoption Attorneys

Virginia L. Frank, PC
Boulder, CO
U.S. Newborn
Joseph, Wiernicki, & Schimming, P.C.
Rockville, MD
Mark T. McDermott
Kensington, MD
Allan F. Stewart & Harold V. O'Rourke
St. Louis, MO
Cofsky & Zeidman, LLC
Donald Cofsky
Haddonfield, NJ
Zamani & Associates
Washington, DC
Family Formation Law Offices
Jennifer Fairfax
Silver Spring, MD
Rosin Steinhagen Mendel
New York, NY
Mark Goldman
Sherman Oaks, CA
U.S. Newborn
Berry Law, P.A.
Christopher Berry
Gorham, ME
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