There was a time in American society where blended families were rare. Today, blended families are the norm for many. Divorced parents and their new partners are becoming accustomed to stepparent roles and responsibilities. New stepparents are learning their roles in matters such as their stepchild’s medical history, educational goals, and discipline. When it comes to these types of matters, how much say-so does a stepparent have?
As it turns out, not much. Stepparents have no rights unless they can overcome the constitutionally protected right to parent one’s child. For most LGBTQ couples, partners may be placed in a role as a parent and if so, then they can gain rights to become a parent. For a stepparent to obtain the authority to make legal decisions for their stepchild, or for the right to seek visitation or custody in the event of a divorce, the stepparent would have to adopt their stepchild.
Why you should adopt your stepchild
One of the main reasons why a stepparent would take the extra step of adopting their stepchild is to obtain the necessary authority to make certain decisions concerning that child. In an emergency medical situation, for example, stepparents do not have the authority to make any decisions on their stepchild’s behalf. When you adopt, however, you gain the same rights over the child that the legal/biological parents have. This includes the right to visitation, custody, and child support.
How does stepparent adoption work in North Carolina?
For the adoption process to begin, you must:
- Be married to one of the biological/legal parents of the children.
- Be a resident of North Carolina for at least six (6) months.
- Live in the same household as your spouse and stepchild.
Once these basic eligibility requirements have been met, there are three other issues to consider:
- Did the other biological/legal parent terminate his or her rights? In order to adopt a child, the other legal/biological parent must give up his or her rights as a parent, or have those rights terminated by the court. Once the biological/legal parent has consented, the parent then must sign an “adoption surrender” or “consent to adoption” document. The biological parent is required to sign at least one of these documents in the presence of two witnesses and a notary public.
- Did the child consent? In North Carolina, stepchildren aged 12 and older must consent to a stepparent adoption.
- Did you complete a home study? Not all stepparents are required to undergo a home study in order to adopt, it’s true. However, if you and your spouse have only been married a short while, or if you have not lived with your spouse and stepchild for very long, you may have to go through a home study first.
What happens if the other parent chooses not to consent to the adoption?
Of course, it would be the best-case scenario that a biological/legal parent wholeheartedly decides to consent to a stepparent adoption. In reality, there are circumstances where one of the parents refuses to consent to the adoption. In these cases, there are certain situations where the other biological/legal parent and the stepparent can still pursue the adoption.
- In cases of child abandonment, the biological/legal parent has to be absent, and fail to communicate with and financially provide for the child over a specific amount of time. While the specific time period varies from state to state, the general time period is usually between six months to a year.
- If one parent is abusive, you may have an easier time meeting the burden of proof that says the other parent is unfit.
- Ultimately, the child’s best interests will always be the primary factor in determining how beneficial the stepparent adoption will be for the stepchild. If the court feels it is in the best interest of the child to be adopted by you, it may terminate one biological/legal parent’s rights
Stepparent adoption vs. legal guardianship
Legal guardianship is entirely different from stepparent adoption, but in some cases, it may be the best option. A court does not grant legal guardianship to a stepparent unless one or both of the biological parents have been deemed unable or unwilling to care for their child. (When it comes to the guardianship of a child, the courts almost always prefer a biological parent or a relative of the biological parent to obtain guardianship.) This does not mean, however, that a stepparent cannot or should not move forward with legal guardianship. It simply means that it can be complicated, and you would do well to work with a Charlotte family law attorney.
Legal guardians can be given custody of a child until he or she turns 18, but the biological/legal parents retain their rights, and can seek to terminate the guardianship. As a legal guardian, your estate will not pass to the child unless you have a will that designates the child as a beneficiary.
Here at Epperson Law Group, PLLC, we can help you with all aspects of adoption and family law. Our lawyers are dedicated to protecting the rights of families across the state and are happy to talk to you about your needs. Let us know how we can help you. To reserve a consultation with one of our lawyers in Charlotte, Weddington, Boone, and Concord, please call 704-321-0031, or submit a contact form.