Blended families are about as common as salt and pepper these days. Some parents want to make them official and tie up legal loose ends by adopting their stepchildren. If you choose to do so, the process might be relatively simple or a major legal challenge. It depends on your spouse’s ex -- the child’s other biological parent.
The rules for adopting your stepchild can vary from state to state, but usually only in the finer details. It’s pretty much a universal rule that three people must consent to the adoption -- both biological parents and the adopting spouse. Your ex’s spouse must give his written consent and many states require that he sign a written affidavit to this effect. Getting his consent might be something of an uphill battle because it means voluntarily and permanently severing all his parental rights. If he doesn’t give his consent, this would typically make adoption impossible if he’s been actively involved in his child’s life.
Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights
The court isn’t likely to terminate a biological parent’s rights against his will if he’s maintained a close relationship with his child. But if he hasn’t, this can sometimes happen. If your spouse’s ex doesn’t want to give his consent to the adoption but he’s failed to pay child support for years and only sporadically sees his child, you can file a preliminary lawsuit against him before you begin adoption proceedings. The first lawsuit would ask the court to terminate his rights even if he won’t give his consent to the adoption. You might also do this if he’s been abusive to the child or has a serious substance abuse problem that affects the parent-child relationship. The bottom line is that the court will rule based on the child’s best interests; if something is going on that works against your child's best interests, the judge might terminate his rights. A similar process would apply if you and your spouse no longer know where her ex is living, so you can’t reach him to ask for consent. In this case, you’d probably have to take another additional step and ask the court to let you serve him with notice of the proceedings by posting a notice in the newspaper.
The Adoption Process
When you’re ready to file a petition for adoption, the rest of the process is usually relatively streamlined. If the biological parent consents, you must file his affidavit with your adoption petition. If you know where he’s living, you must serve him with a copy of all the filed paperwork. The court will schedule a hearing, and in some states, the judge might want to talk to your child, depending on his age and maturity.
Some states are more relaxed about stepparent adoptions than regular adoptions; they waive some of the usual requirements. If this isn’t the case where you live, the court may send a social worker or other professional to your home to check out living conditions, just as it does when neither prospective parent is related to the child. The social worker might want to interview the child, and you might have to provide other information as well, such as references from acquaintances or coworkers and a medical report. You might have to agree to a criminal background check.