When you’re in a relationship with someone who has children from a prior relationship, it is not uncommon to bond with and treat those children as if they were your own. It is important, however, to remember your rights as a step-parent differ substantially then the parental rights of a biological or legal parent. Should something happen to your spouse or partner, you may find you have no say in the children’s future—how they are raised, where they will reside, or who makes those decisions on their behalf. A Step-Parent Adoption may be the best pathway to gain those rights as the children’s legal parent.
A step-parent adoption is the common name given to the process where one legal or biological parent of a child or children from a previous relationship agrees to join in an adoption proceeding with their new spouse or partner to establish him or her as the new legal co-parent of the child or children.
One hurdle in most step-parent adoptions is the requirement for termination of the other biological parents’ parental rights in order for the new step-parent or co-parent to become the legal parent.
This process is generally done when the biological parent agrees to the process and is willing to sign a Consent form, voluntarily terminating his or her parental rights for the purpose of the step parent adoption. If the biological parent cannot be found, or if he or she is opposed to the step-parent adoption, there may still be options to proceed through a legal process to terminate his or her parental rights without that parent’s consent.
- Whereabouts of Biological Parent Unknown. If the whereabouts of the biological parent are not known, notice of the proceeding to terminate rights may be permitted by mail or through publication in a newspaper within the general circulation area of his or her last known address. If he or she fails to respond or fails to appear in Court at the designated time, his or her parental rights can be terminated by a default order of the Court.
- Personal Service on Biological Parent. If the biological parent’s whereabouts are known and he or she objects to the adoption and termination of parental rights, a Court trial can be held to have a judge decide if parental rights should be terminated. However, it can be a very costly and uncertain process that is best discussed in detail with an attorney.
In addition to terminating the other biological parent’s rights, the law also requires that the prospective adoptive step-parent and family meet with a qualified social worker who prepares a Step-parent Adoption assessment, formally called a “Post-Placement Report”. This assessment includes a recommendation to the court regarding the nature and adequacy of the adoption and whether it is in the best interest of the child for the planned adoption to be approved.
Once the biological parent’s rights have been terminated and a favorable Post-Placement Report has been completed, the finalization hearing can be scheduled with the Court. At the conclusion of the hearing, the Court will enter a Decree of Adoption—presently those hearings are conducted by Zoom video conference with no personal appearance required. With that Decree, you can obtain a new birth certificate for each child, identifying both of the former “step-parent” as a legal parent and guardian of the child and changing the name of the children (if you desire to do so).
Our Adoption Team is happy to assist you with any questions you may have about this process. We help families throughout Washington state with step-parent adoptions. Please contact our office for a consultation on whether a step-parent adoption can work in your family’s situation.