One's biochild is one's birth child. Adoption is a legal procedure in which an adult becomes the legal parent of someone who is not his or her biochild. Relative adoption is adoption by somebody related to the child by blood or marriage. Stepparent adoption is adoption of a marital partner's child.
Stepparent adoption is a form of “relative adoption,” which is adoption of a child by somebody who is related to the child by blood or marriage. (Another common type of relative adoption is adoption by grandparents, but stepparent adoption is far more common.) Legally, there is no difference between an adopted child and a biological child for consent, surnames, custody, child support, inheritance and property laws, incest, criminal law, and so on.
In most adoptions, the relationship between the child and the bioparents is usually terminated, over, kaput. In a stepparent adoption, only the noncustodial parent loses parental rights. (The noncustodial parent occasionally keeps visitation rights, and I'll talk about that a little later.)
Why Adopt Your Stepchild?
There are few reasons why you need to adopt a stepchild. In this country, people can choose to live with whomever they want, they can support anybody they want, and they can love whomever they want. But there are many reasons why a stepparent might want to adopt a stepchild.
For some, it's a matter of protecting the child from legal snafus around inheritance. For others, it's an attempt to give equal status to all kids living in the household. Or the action itself may be a ritual of public commitment, like a wedding ceremony. For others, it's just making legal what's already a reality; the commitment, and the actions of parenting, have taken place long before.
If your stepchild's other bioparent dies, you may want to solidify your legal relationship. Thus ends the wishy-washiness. It's all settled—medical release, names, inheritance, and guardianship questions.
What happens if you haven't adopted your stepchild and your partner dies? As a stepparent, you have no legal relationship with your step-little-one. Unless you adopt (or are named guardian in advance), the court will be appointed guardian in such a circumstance. Your stepchild may be sent to live with biological relatives, and you may not be able to gain any visitation rights. (Of course, all this is true if the other bioparent has not died. In that case, if your partner dies, your stepkids automatically go to the noncustodial parent.)
Here are some other reasons to consider adopting your stepchild:
- If the other bioparent is living but has abused, neglected, or abandoned the kids, you two and the kids may want to sever that hideous relationship.
- Adoption is a demonstration of affection and commitment. It's not just legal; it's also highly symbolic because the child literally becomes your child. And it certainly stops all those arguments that begin with, “You're not my dad! You can't tell me what to do!” (Hey, but that's not a real reason; the tensions will simply pop up elsewhere.)
- Adoption can help enforce those incest taboos between siblings.
- You may consider adoption if you've got shared biochildren and you want the stepchild to have status and rights that are indistinguishable from the other kids. Adoption also helps reduce sibling jealousy.
- Adoption is permanent. Adoption provides emotional security for the stepchild (and for you!). Adoption is a ritual that says, “You're mine forever—I choose you.”
Don't Be Wicked
Is it really in the child's best interest to cut him off from his other bioparent? Stepparent adoption may leave the child with a sense of loss and guilt (ah, those loyalty issues), especially if the bioparent has been involved in the child's life. Even when the parent isn't around, adoption is a very serious thing. This is the kid's parent you're talking about!
When Not to Adopt
There are also many reasons not to adopt your stepchild. Here's a dose of ugly reality to spoil your day:
- Before starting proceedings to adopt a stepchild whose other bioparent is living, consider very deeply. Adoption is permanent and severs the relationship with the bioparent.
- Adoption cures nothing. Although it might ease sibling jealousies, it doesn't erase all tension around your house. Adoption won't automatically solidify your family. Don't use it as medicine.
- If there's any doubt about the health or longevity of your partnership, hold off! As you are well aware, partnerships can break up, but your relationship as parent—be it biological or adoptive—doesn't end.
- A contested stepparent adoption is awful for everybody, especially the child. Do you want to put everybody through that kind of scrutiny?
A legal guardian is a person appointed by the court to care for a child's personal needs, including shelter, education, and medical care. A legal guardian is not a parent. Unlike in an adoption, the parents retain their rights—and their financial responsibilities for the child.
Many legal protections provided by adoption can be obtained by stepfamilies with a little bit of extra work. Adoption is not always necessary, and the choice to adopt should not be made just for pragmatic reasons. Taking a child as your own is an emotional commitment, too.
If adoption is impossible, unfeasible, or undesirable, consider becoming your stepchild's legal guardian. A guardianship establishes a legal relationship between you and your stepchild (for things such as medical consent and providing education, food, shelter, and clothing), but the parents remain the parents. This option may work for you if you are a custodial stepparent. In this case, you'll need the consent of the other bioparent, but you may face less resistance than if you were requesting consent for an adoption. If you decide to become your stepchild's legal guardian, consider acknowledging this important step in your relationship with a family ceremony.