November is National Adoption Awareness Month, and an opportunity to talk about my favorite area of law. You guessed it, adoptions!
What most people think of when they hear “adoption” is a private adoption through an agency – traveling across state lines or even countries, creating an adoption profile, and matching with a birth mother. However, many opportunities for changing a child’s life occur much closer to home. As a stepparent, you are already committed to providing a loving and secure home for your stepchildren, but adopting can add many legal and emotional benefits to this relationship. Adoption requirements are complex and vary from family to family depending on the circumstances, so hiring an experienced attorney is invaluable to a smooth adoption process. Here are five things to know when considering if a stepparent adoption is right for your family:
The Biological Parent’s Rights Must be Terminated
A very important step to consider is that the other biological parent’s parental rights must be terminated in order for a stepparent adoption. This is achieved in one of two ways: 1) the biological parent consents to the adoption, and appears in court to sign his or her consent in front of the judge; or 2) the biological parent’s rights are terminated by the court without the parent’s approval.
Whether or not the biological parent will consent to an adoption is very specific to your family’s circumstances, and the answer will greatly affect how your adoption moves forward. If the biological parent does not consent to the adoption, the court must decide if the biological parent’s rights should be terminated. This may require you to provide evidence to the court in support of termination.
Termination of rights for a parent who challenges an adoption is, of course, much more difficult than if that parent consents. The other biological parent’s involvement in your stepchild’s life, and his or her desire to be involved, is something that cannot be ignored. However, “open adoptions” are becoming more and more common, and you may choose to apply this practice to your stepparent adoption. In an open adoption, the adopting parents continue to provide the biological parent who has terminated rights with updates about the minor child, or even facilitate continued contact between the biological parent and the child after adoption.
Wait One to Two Years to Begin the Process
There are many requirements that must be met before the court will approve a stepparent adoption. However, waiting to start the adoption until you have been married for one to two years can allow you to avoid many of the more time-consuming steps. If you have been married for more than one year, stepparents can bypass the “pre-placement study” (home visit, personal interviews, medical records, letters of reference, etc. that occur at the beginning of the adoption) and the “post-placement study” (a follow-up of many of the steps in the pre-placement study after the adoption is final). If the biological parent and the stepparent are married for more than two years, both the biological parent and the stepparent do not have to attend counseling sessions (but other counseling requirements may still apply).
Counseling for Parents and Child
Stepparent adoption has many effects, both legal and emotional, to every member of your family. Counseling assesses both the child and the parents’ understanding of what adoption means, from both a legal and personal perspective. If your stepchild is ten years old or older, he or she will need to attend at least two counseling sessions with a qualified professional. If the other biological parent consents to terminating his or her rights, that parent may also be ordered to attend counseling. If you and your spouse have been married for less than two years, both you and your spouse will attend a counseling session. The counselor for each person then confirms to the court that counseling was completed and met the necessary standards.
Even if counseling is not a legal requirement for your adoption, speaking with a counselor or researching other resources about adoption can be very helpful. Many people struggle with discussing adoption, both within their own family and with other people. There are tools both online and in your community that help families learn about and discuss adoption in a comfortable and productive way.
Background Checks and Fingerprinting
Anybody who wishes to adopt, even a stepparent, must submit fingerprints to Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to conduct a background check. The background check includes criminal history and any reports made to CYFD for abuse or neglect of a child. The stepparent must provide information for each adult living in the house (including the biological parent), and a background check will be conducted on these adults as well.
Adoption Day is Everything
The good news is that after everything you have been through, your adoption day is a wonderful celebration. The court will not set the date for your adoption day unless they are sure that every requirement is met, which means that on your adoption day there is nothing to worry about except bringing enough cameras and ordering enough cake for your after-party. You can invite family and friends to court, and expect several pictures with your family as well as with the judge who approves your adoption. It has been a long process to get you to this day, but the end result is always worth it.
About our Guest Blogger
Rebecca Mulcahy, J.D., is a family law attorney located in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Mother of two and a military spouse, Ms. Mulcahy was born and raised in Albuquerque and graduated from the University of New Mexico School of Law. Ms. Mulcahy’s law practice focuses on adoption, divorce, child custody, child support, and kinship guardianship. This post is for informational use only and does not create an attorney-client relationship. Every family is unique, and as such this post does not provide legal advice for a specific situation or person. To discuss your case and get legal advice, please visit www.MulcahyLawNM.com or call (505) 595-1430 to schedule a consultation.