Neither biology nor a piece of paper makes a parent. The act of loving and supporting a child unconditionally makes you a parent to a child whether natural born, adopted or as a stepparent. But, in the eyes of the law, as a stepparent, you are not the legal parent of the child. To become the legal parent of a child or children of your spouse, a stepparent adoption must occur.
The legal pathway to a stepparent adoption is slightly different than that of a non-relative adoption (often a newborn adoption where the adopting parents are not related to the child). In a non-relative adoption, the parental rights of both birth mother and birth father are terminated and an adoptive parent or parents petition to adopt the child(ren). Further, there are more legal filings required in a non-relative adoption such as a Report of Intention to Adopt (which informs the court that an adoption is in progress) and a Report of Intermediary (where the agency, for example, files their report in reference to the pending adoption). Further, in a stepparent adoption, the courts generally do not require a home study since the courts treat this as a “relative adoption”.
In a stepparent adoption, only one birth parent’s rights are terminated. Generally, in order to terminate parental rights, either the parent whose rights are being terminated must consent to the termination of parental rights or the rights must be terminated on an involuntary basis. In Pennsylvania, the birth parent consenting to the termination of parental rights has thirty days to revoke their consent in writing. Once the thirty days has passed, the consent becomes irrevocable unless the birth parent can show fraud or duress.
In the case of involuntary termination, under Pennsylvania law, the courts provide for numerous grounds for terminating rights involuntarily. The grounds could be, inter alia, the parent has refused or failed to perform parental duties for a period of six months or in the case of a newborn the parent knows or has reason to know of the child’s birth and the parent has failed for a period of four months to maintain substantial and continuing contact with the child and has failed to provide substantial financial support, among other grounds for termination. These are just two of the nine involuntary termination grounds identified in the Adoption Act.
Either through consent or involuntary termination, there is a hearing held whereby the petitioning party must show that the consents should be confirmed and the rights of the consenting parent should be terminated, or in the case of an involuntary termination, that the grounds have been met and that the rights of that parent should be terminated.
Subsequent to the termination of parental rights, the courts move to the adoption finalization hearing. At the stepparent adoption hearing, the adoptive parent, their spouse and the child or children to be adopted are present and through counsel, the court will hear testimony to ensure that all requirements of the Adoption Act are met, that the parties understand the significance of the adoption and that the adoption will serve the best interest of the child(ren). Further, the law requires the consent to the adoption of a child aged twelve and older. Even in the case of a younger child, the court will often ask children of competent age their feelings about the adoption.
Among the most significant implications of all adoptions is that once the child is adopted by an adoptive parent, that child will be treated under the law as if that child were his/her natural born child. This means that if the adoptive parent were to die without a will, known as intestate, the child will inherit from that parent as if he or she were their natural born child whereas as a stepchild, if a stepparent dies intestate, their stepchild would not inherit from them. Another implication of adoption is that the adopting parent has the duty to provide for the child as if the child were natural born. Among other implications, this means in the event of a separation or divorce, the adopting parent will have a duty of child support as well as a right to physical and legal custody.
Adoption is a wonderful thing. In the case of stepparent adoption, it can truly complete a family and complete the bond between a parent and his or her stepchild. The decision to adopt may be an easy one, but all parties must consider the implications that are often uncomfortable to address. It is never easy to plan for one’s death or the possibility of separation or divorce, but it must be considered to ensure that the parties know their obligations and ensure that the decision to adopt is in the best interest of the child.
If you need to file documents related to child custody, you should speak with an experienced West Chester child custody attorney. At Potts, Shoemaker, and Grossman, LLC, our attorneys are prepared to help you seek child custody to protect your family member. To schedule a confidential consultation, contact us at (610) 840-2626.
*This article was originally published in the MacElree Harvey newsletter in 2015 as written by Julie M. Potts, Esquire.