If you have formed a loving attachment with your stepchild, you may be thinking about legalizing the relationship through adoption. Perhaps your stepchild's noncustodial biological parent has died or has disappeared from your stepchild's life. Adoption can be a new beginning for you, your stepchild and everyone in your family. When you're part of a military family, you'll also want to consider the benefits a legal adoption can bring to your stepchild.
Benefits of adoption
Adopting a stepchild can help foster a sense of permanence and commitment in your family. Here are some of the emotional and legal benefits and responsibilities of adoption:
- Adoption increases a stepchild's sense of belonging in the family.
- Sharing a last name can make things easier for your stepchild.
- You can sign official documents for your stepchild.
- Your stepchild will have inheritance rights upon your death.
- You have access to your stepchild's official records and documents, including medical and school records.
- Your stepchild may keep his or her medical and dental benefits through TRICARE, even if you divorce the child's birth parent.
- You may have visitation and custody rights and child support responsibilities if you divorce the child's birth parent.
Whether adoption is an option for you may depend on the wishes and rights of the child's other birth parent, the noncustodial parent. Adoption permanently cuts off all legal ties between the child and the noncustodial biological parent and creates a new parent-child relationship between the adopting adult and the child. This can generally only be done with the biological parent's knowledge. Thus, as in any adoption, when a stepparent wishes to adopt a child, the child's noncustodial biological parent must get notice of the adoption and a chance to refuse consent.
In most states, a putative father (a man who is alleged or thought to be the father of a child born out of wedlock) is entitled to receive notice that adoption proceedings have been initiated. For the adoption to proceed, both biological parents (your spouse and the noncustodial parent) must either consent or fail to respond.
Consent to adoption means that the noncustodial biological parent gives up all parental rights and responsibilities, including the right to have a relationship with the child and the responsibility of providing financial support for the child. If the biological parent refuses to consent, state law may prevent the adoption from proceeding. Most states provide for special circumstances when the parent's consent isn't required, such as in cases of abuse, neglect or when the biological parent hasn't had contact with the child for a long time. When you are working through the arrangement with your stepchild's birth parent, here are some things to keep in mind:
- Don't rush the decision. This decision is an emotional one, and it can take time. Don't pressure the noncustodial parent. If he or she regrets the decision later on, that could mean more turmoil for everyone involved. Some states allow a period during which the noncustodial parent can rescind, or take back, the agreement to give up parental rights. The more carefully this decision is made, the more likely it is to stick.
- Try to cooperate with each other. When you and the noncustodial parent accept and understand each other, your stepchild will adjust more easily and feel more comfortable in the stepfamily. A bitter or argumentative situation will negatively affect your child.
- Consider working out kinship agreements with the noncustodial parent. Although not always enforceable in court, these agreements help create a framework for the relationships between the noncustodial parent, the child and the family with which the child lives. For instance, they may specify the frequency and duration of visits and whether visits need to be supervised.
- Remember that the noncustodial parent will always be your child's birth parent. Emotional ties will remain. There are no ex-parents, only ex-spouses. It can be just as emotionally complicated to adopt a stepchild whose birth parent has died. Your stepchild may remember his or her deceased parent as a "saint," and you may find it difficult to live up to this idealized memory. You might consider joining a support group or talking with a counselor to work through these issues.
Adoption laws vary from state to state. While this article covers areas that are generally common to all state adoption laws, it is not a substitute for individualized legal advice particular to your state and your circumstances. To find out about your state's laws, start with the Child Welfare Information Gateway. This site includes both a summary and the full text of each state's law on kinship adoption. Here are some areas to look into:
- Residency requirements — Some states require the child to have lived in your home for a certain period of time, typically one year. Your state may also require you to have been legally married to the child's biological parent for at least a year before filing for adoption.
- Consents — All states require the biological parents' consent to adoption, with each state having its own procedures for waiving that requirement under certain conditions. Depending on the child's age and your state law, the child's consent may also be required.
- The legal process — As in any court proceeding, there will be documents to file and hearings to attend. Because laws vary widely by state, it may help to talk with an attorney or other legal professional who is familiar with adoptions. The legal assistance office on your installation may be able to help with some of the adoption details.
- Hiring an attorney — Depending on where you live, you may need to hire a lawyer to legalize the adoption or you may only have to fill out a standard form. Your installation's legal assistance office may be able to help or refer you to a local attorney.
Making the transition
The adoption process and the changes that go with it may be much easier for very young children than for older ones. Here are some ways to make sure that your stepchild feels comfortable with the adoption and plays an active role in the decision-making process:
- Discuss the adoption with your stepchild. It's important to discuss your decision with your stepchild and make sure that he or she does not have any misgivings or negative feelings about it. Try to make this time of change as easy for the child as you can.
- Consult a social worker or counselor. It might be helpful for your stepchild to have a neutral party to meet and talk with. This will be especially helpful for your stepchild if he or she is confused by feelings of loyalty toward the birth parent. Counseling services may be available through your installation's Military and Family Support Center.
- Enroll your stepchild in DEERS. If your stepchild isn't already enrolled in DEERS, you'll want to do that as soon as possible so he or she can receive medical and dental care through the military's health care system. For more information, visit the TRICARE website or call the DEERS office at 800-538-9552.
- Celebrate! This is a very special time for your family. On the day that your adoption is legalized, you might want to take your child to his or her favorite restaurant or throw a party. This can be your child's special day, to be celebrated each year.