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Is stepparent adoption right for your family?

The term "nuclear" doesn't fit most families today. Many kids grow up with stepparents, step siblings, half siblings, two moms, two dads or with grandparents as their guardians. When you enter into a blended family as a stepparent, you might love a child as your own, but you don't get the same parental rights as a biological parent.

Stepparent adoption is one of the more common types of adoptions. When an adoption has been completed, the child will - in the eyes of the law - be no different than a biological child.

The child will enjoy all the same rights and privileges as one's biological offspring in terms of parental consent, surnames, custody, inheritance, and child support among others. You become the legal guardian and assume all the legal responsibilities as the custodial parent for that child.

What are the benefits of adopting?

There are many good reasons to want to adopt a stepchild. Some people may choose this course in order to shield a child from legal problems regarding inheritance. Other stepparents may want to adopt to secure equal legal status among other children in the family - a level playing field if you will.

In many ways, the move is a rite of passage, much like a wedding ceremony or Bar Mitzvah. Adoption makes the child, officially, part of the clan. Symbolically, it is a gesture that formally acknowledges the love and commitment that already exists.

There are also real life tragedies that could make adopting important. For instance, what happens if the biological parent should pass away? If you did not finalize an adoption, then you are not a legally recognized parent in the eyes of the law.

In such circumstances, you could petition the court for guardianship, but it is not a guarantee. Courts could send children to live with blood relatives and that could leave you without basic visitation rights. Blood relatives could include the noncustodial parent, grandparents, adult siblings or aunts and uncles.

Situations in which stepparent adoption may make the most sense

There are some situations in which taking on the legal responsibility of a child might be the best decision for you and the child. This could include:

  • When a biological parent is unfit to care for the child
  • As a show of love, affection and commitment as a family
  • When you want to formally establish family relationships among step siblings
  • When you share biological children with a spouse
  • Many other situations

Situations when stepparent adoption may not be beneficial

Adopting a child changes the legal parentage, which is a big decision and responsibility. There are some situations in which stepparents may not want to adopt - or reasons why it might be better for those involved to forgo the adoption.

  • Severing the parent-child relationship with the biological parent. Adoption is permanent, which is why it is important to ask if terminating a biological parent's rights is in the child's best interest.
  • Adoption may not be good medicine. If rivalries and hard feelings exist between children, adoption likely won't be the cure-all. In fact, it may heighten these problems. Make sure to focus on the underlying issues first.
  • Marital instability. If your marriage or partnership is shaky, hold off. Adoption can make a family breakup even more stressful for the child and you could end up shouldering a burden you were not ready or truly willing to accept.
  • Contested adoptions. If a noncustodial parent is against the move, is it worth putting the child (and yourself) through a messy court proceeding?

Weigh your options

There are other ways to protect and nurture your stepparent-child relationship without an adoption. If you have the slightest inkling that some of the items listed above as non-beneficial exist, or adoption doesn't make pragmatic sense for other reasons, consider a legal guardianship.

In many respects, guardianship affords you similar legal status in terms of emotional and financial support of the child. You will need the approval of the noncustodial parent, but guardianship tends to be a shorter hurdle than asking a biological parent to surrender his or her rights.

Whichever path you choose, legal guardianship or full stepparent adoption, it's important to thoroughly consider the interests of the child ahead of your own feelings and others. 

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