As much as I enjoy helping people navigate difficulties like divorce and custody disputes, it always brightens my day when a stepparent adoption consultation crosses my door. During this optimistic call I talk to the biological parent and their spouse about the family dynamic between the children and their stepparent. It is encouraging to hear the desire to adopt in the voice of the stepparent and learn about the relationship they have already forged with the children.
In stepparent consultations, I am frequently asked, “how long will this process take and will it go our way?” The time-tested response to many legal queries is, “it depends.” I can say that adoptions take no less than one year if everything is well prepared and no hiccups arise. A no-hiccup type case means that no one wishes to fight the adopting stepparent. Perhaps the biological mother died, and the father has married a new woman and she wishes to adopt her stepchildren. Or, perhaps the biological mother has been absent for such a long time that she is relieved to sign a consent form, permitting the new stepmother to adopt. Sometimes the birth parent wants their rights to the children terminated because it stops an ongoing obligation for the birth parent to pay child support.
When the birth parent consents, or their consent is not required because they are deceased, stepparent adoptions can be completed in a relatively quick proceeding. The family will need about a month to complete all the necessary paperwork. Then, the family will submit the documents to the social services department (HHSA in San Diego) and courthouse. A social worker will interview the family, to make sure the stepparent is trustworthy and does not pose a danger to the children. The social worker will also verify with the biological parent that they consent to their new spouse adopting the children. If the social worker’s report is favorable, the court will review all documents to make sure the other noncustodial parent does not need to have a trial (because they likewise are consenting to the adoption or their consent is not needed because they have passed on.) If the paperwork is completed accurately and the court has no additional concerns, the judge will bring the family to a hearing and complete the adoption order. All of this can take about 12 months.
On the other hand, when the noncustodial birth parent does not consent, or will not complete consent documents, the court must conduct a hearing. That hearing will take place before any further adoption process can continue. The hearing will allow the absentee birth parent to push to maintain their parental rights, and if they choose to participate, counsel will be automatically assigned to them. Even if they have “abandoned” the child for over a year without visits or support payments, the court will consider maintaining their constitutional right to parenthood. But, if the parent does not participate, or there is good evidence of abandonment and danger to the children, the court may order that the parental rights are terminated. Once the parental rights are terminated, then the case is passed to the social services department for investigation of the stepparent and eventually back to the family court for the adoption proceeding.
But with stepparent adoptions, it is such a pleasure to help families rebuild. I am heartened to help a stepparent who has chosen to fulfill that role in a child’s life and formalize their relationship in the eyes of the law. The work is joyous because I know it will have a profound positive effect on the child being adopted. While this process can be completed without the assistance of an attorney, the steps can be confusing and cumbersome. I step in when a family wants to let a legal expert lead the way, especially if there are complexities such as a lack of consent from the absent biological parent.
If you are interested in speaking with attorney Anna Howard regarding stepparent adoption, please click here to schedule your free 25 minute phone consultation.