Many couples who enter into marriage or domestic partnerships in California have a child or children from a previous relationship or one partner may choose to use surrogacy to become a parent. By virtue of the legal status between the partners, the non-parent becomes a stepparent to the children of their partner. But the status of being a stepparent does not confer any legal rights between the stepparent and the children. Only by adopting a stepchild can a stepparent ensure that they will be recognized as the legal parent of the child and given the associated rights and responsibilities.
Stepparent and Domestic Partner Adoptions in California
A stepparent or domestic partner who wants to adopt the child or children of their partner must initiate the process by filing certain forms with the court. There are two adoption processes for stepparents depending on their relationship with the birth parent at the time of a child’s birth.
- Stepparent adoption to confirm parentage – This is a streamlined adoption process for the stepparent that was in a legal union with the birth parent at the time of the child’s birth and is still in the relationship.
- Stepparent/domestic partner adoption – If the stepparent was not in a legal relationship with the birth parent at the time of the child’s birth or is no longer in a legal relationship with the birth parent, the adoption process is more complex. A child welfare specialist must conduct an investigation and prepare a report for the court. In most cases, the other birth parent must be notified of the adoption and agree to it.
In either type of stepparent adoption, if the adoptive child is age 12 or older, the child must also agree to the adoption.
Initiating the Stepparent Adoption Process
A stepparent can begin the adoption process by submitting the adoption request and adoption agreement forms to the superior court clerk. The adoption request provides a judge with information about the stepparent and the child to be adopted. For children age 12 or above the adoption agreement evidences the child’s willingness to have the adoption approved.
If a stepparent is requesting an adoption to confirm parentage, the stepparent and the birth parent must complete declarations about their relationship at the time the child was born and whether the child was conceived through surrogacy or may have another legal parent. If everything appears in order, a judge will usually sign an adoption order approving the adoption.
For the stepparent who was not in a legal relationship with the birth parent at the time of a child’s birth or is no longer in a relationship with the birth parent, the court is going to take a closer look at the adoptive parent to make sure the adoption is in the best interests of the child and that every attempt be made to notify any other person who may lose parental rights if the adoption is approved.
Stepparent Investigation, Consent to Adopt, and Termination of a Birth Parent’s Rights
A social worker or other approved family services professional will typically interview the stepparent and prepare a report that the court uses to ascertain the parental fitness of the stepparent and the likelihood that another birth parent exists.
Because adoption by a stepparent will terminate the rights of the other birth parent, obtaining consent to the adoption from the other parent is generally required. If a birth parent refuses to give consent to the adoption, then a court action to terminate parental rights is the only recourse a stepparent has.
A stepparent may succeed with a termination of parental rights if:
- The birth parent has ‘abandoned’ the child by not seeing or talking with them for more than a year without paying child support.
- The birth parent was properly served with the adoption papers and does not show up in court to object to the adoption.
- The judge decides that approving the adoption is in the best interests of the child.
If the whereabouts of the other birth parent are unknown, attempts must be made to locate and notify the person about the adoption. The California court system recommends using any of the following methods to try and locate a birth parent:
- Send a certified letter to their last known address with the address correction requested
- Contact all known persons who may have information about the birth parent
- Search the internet and social media
- Use a cell phone tracking app to track a last known cell number
- Search online phone directories and other databases that focus on people-related information
- Contact local government agencies in the last known area the birthparent resided – especially those that are known to have had contact with the parent.
Sincere efforts must be made to locate a birth parent, and all attempts need to be recorded by date and what was done to demonstrate to the court that all reasonable measures were taken. If a judge agrees that there is nothing more that can be done to locate a birth parent, the judge can approve the adoption. However, the attempts to locate the birth parent must be authentic because if the birth parent later appears and can disprove the attempts to be found, the legality of the adoption can be challenged.
Why it is Important for a Stepparent to Adopt a Stepchild
Formal adoption is not necessary for a stepparent to be a loving parent to a stepchild. But there are sound reasons for making the relationship legal that benefit both a stepparent and a stepchild.
- Recognition as a child’s legal parent – Adopting a stepchild gives a stepparent legal rights regarding access to the child and authority to make decisions on behalf of the child.
- Minimizing disruptions by a difficult birth parent – Adopting a stepchild terminates the parental rights of a birth parent who might be uncooperative or unsupportive and would otherwise still have the authority to influence decisions affecting the child.
- Demonstrates a commitment to the child – Since adoption is voluntary, adopting a stepchild shows an intention to be the parent a child can count on no matter what and helps to establish stability and security in the child’s life.
For a stepparent who wants to commit to a stepchild, adoption is necessary to make sure the relationship is protected by law. And while anyone can complete the paperwork and initiate the adoption process, it is a good idea to work with an attorney experienced in California adoptions to make sure everything required is done so that the adoption can be approved as quickly as possible.