The Adoption Process
In most states, there are three main types of procedures for adopting a step child. Which one you will follow depends on the circumstances in your family. Here is a brief description of each.
One of the terms you will see quite a bit is “absent parent.” If you are a stepmother, “absent parent” means the legal mother of your step child. If you are a stepfather, it means the legal father of your step child. The term “missing parent” is used for an absent parent whose whereabouts are unknown.
If the absent parent consents: If your step child’s absent parent consents to the adoption or is deceased, the process should be smooth and quick. You will file an adoption petition with a court in your county, talk to a local Social Service agency, go to a short hearing in front of a judge, and file the adoption decree with the county clerk.
If you can’t find the absent parent: If your step child’s absent parent can’t be located, the process is a little more complicated. You first must try to locate the missing parent. You may need to claim, in documents filed with the court, that the absent parent abandoned the child or willfully failed to meet his parental obligations. The county Social Service Department and the court must approve the adoption unless the Social Service Department home study and consent is ordered unnecessary by a judge.
If the absent parent won’t consent: If your step child’s absent parent won’t consent to the adoption, you may not be able to adopt your step child. A legal parent who is in contact with and supports the child and contests the adoption petition can prevent the adoption. If the absent parent won’t consent but doesn’t actually contest the adoption petition in court, you may still be able to adopt.
More Than One Step child. You may use one petition to request adoption of more than one child if the children all have the same two parents. If your stepchildren have different absent parents (for example, your wife had a child with each of her two former husbands), you will need to file separate petitions.
In Which Court to File
The court that will handle your adoption case is the Court located in the county in which you live. All documents in connection with your adoption action have to be filed with the Clerk of the Court. Since in many counties the county clerk also functions as the Clerk of the Court, we use the term “county clerk” as synonymous with “Clerk of the Court.” However, when you communicate with the county about your adoption action, use the term “Clerk of the Court (Civil)” so it will know that you are referring to a civil (not criminal) court matter.
Changing Your Adopted Child’s Name
As part of the adoption, your step child’s last name can be changed to any name on which you, your spouse and your step child all agree. Many people choose to have the child’s last name changed to the adoptive father’s, though you can use a last name that has no connection with either your name or your spouse’s. To change your step child’s name, put the new name in the adoption decree; the change becomes legally effective when the decree is filed with the court.
You can have the child’s birth certificate amended to reflect the new name. Whether or not your step child’s name is being changed, the birth certificate can still be changed to show you as the parent. The name of the absent parent is removed and you are shown as the parent. No mention is made in the new birth certificate of the adoption; the certificate will appear the same as it would if you were the natural parent. The old birth certificate is sealed and can only be unsealed by a court order. An amended birth certificate is not required by law, even if your step child’s name is changed on the adoption decree. But most people, thinking of the many confusing situations that could arise for a stepchild in later years, choose to have the birth certificate changed if the step child’s name is changed. Since you, your spouse, and your step child (if he or she is old enough to reason) have quite a bit of leeway regarding the name change and birth certificate, you may wish to consider the pros and cons in a three-way discussion.
Kinship Adoption Agreement
Under a kinship adoption agreement, the stepparent, the birth parents and birth relatives may agree to visitation between the adopted child and the birth relatives. The signed agreement is filed with the adoption petition. If the interested parties wish to explore this option further, consider seeking objective help. A licensed child and family counselor, a professional mediator or a family law attorney may be useful in helping all interested parties arrive at a meeting of the minds on visitation and other pertinent issues.
Note: In some states, if your step child is 12 years of age or older, then the step child’s consent to the agreement is required.