Few things make us happier than helping with adoption matters, which we often refer to as “happy law.” Among some of the most common cases of adoption are those in which a stepparent adopts a stepchild. These cases often take place after the stepparent and stepchild have been part of the same family at heart and at home. The adoption finally makes them a family in the legal sense as well.
When May Stepparents Adopt Their Stepchildren?
As with most family law issues, adoption law is state-specific. In Massachusetts, in order for the stepparent to be eligible to adopt, she or he must be over the age of 18. Further, the stepparent’s spouse must have legal and physical custody of the child. Generally, the child must have lived primarily with the custodial parent and the stepparent for six months before the case is filed. Same-sex stepparents are eligible to adopt their stepchildren in the same manner as opposite-sex couples in Massachusetts.
What is the Process for a Stepparent Adoption?
Compared to other types of adoptions, a stepparent adoption tends to be easier. The process begins by filing a petition with the Probate and Family Court. In this process, you will also need to obtain the consent of certain parties for the adoption.
The minor stepchild’s non-custodial biological parent must consent to the adoption. If the non-custodial biological parent agrees to the adoption, the court will likely grant it. The non-custodial parent must consent to waiving his or her parental rights. Such consent must be in writing in a specific form. This is known as a surrender.
If the biological parent does not agree to the adoption, then the stepparent seeking to adopt will likely need to file a petition to dispense with the need for consent. In turn, the judge will need to determine if dispensing with the parental consent requirement is in the best interests of the child. It may be in the best interests of the child to do so in cases of neglect or abuse of the child by that parent. Dispensing with parental consent may also be appropriate if that parent abandoned the child. Or, if the parent has been convicted of certain crimes.
If the child is over the age of 12, the child must also consent to the adoption. Additionally, if the child is married, the child’s spouse must consent to the adoption as well.
Typically, in stepparent adoption cases, the Department of Children and Families will not be involved in the process. The court may also waive the home study, which the court requires in other types of adoptions. These are some of the reasons that make a stepparent adoption easier.
What is the Legal Effect of a Stepparent Adoption?
Once the adoption is final, the stepparent becomes a legal parent of the child. This means the stepparent has all the legal custody that a biological parent would normally have. This includes the ability to make important medical, educational, and life decisions on behalf of the child. The stepparent will also have rights to physical custody with the child. Further, it means the stepparent shares the same parental obligations to care for and support the child. This includes physical, financial, and emotional support.
One should consider other legal effects before filing for a stepparent adoption. For example, with very limited exception, an adopted child will lose certain inheritance rights related to the biological parent whose parental rights the court terminated. Yet, an adoption creates certain inheritance rights between the adopted child and stepparent. In cases involving a stepparent who dies without a will or with an invalid will, the adopted child will be able to inherit from the stepparent’s estate under Massachusetts law.
There may also be implications if the stepparent divorces his or her spouse (the custodial biological parent). In that case, it is possible that the stepparent will need to pay child support, maintain health insurance for the child, or even contribute to the child’s college costs. Additionally, the child’s birth certificate will change. There, the stepparent’s name will replace the name of the biological parent whose parental rights the court terminated in the adoption.
In addition to legal outcomes and effects, one should also carefully consider the emotional impacts that the stepparent adoption may have on all of the members of the family. This is true whether that person be the adopted child, the parents, other children in the family, or even extended family members.
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