Stepparent adoption is the second-most-common form of adoption in the U.S., second only to foster-adoption. The term refers to the practice of a stepparent assuming the legal role of a child’s mother or father in the absence of the child’s noncustodial parent. Stepparent adoption almost always occurs when a divorced parent remarries, and the child’s original parent is either unwilling, unable or legally declared unfit to continue the parental role. However, some stepparent adoptions occur after the death of the child’s biological parent to whom the other parent was married or, less often, after the divorce of a stepparent and biological parent.
Stepparent adoption is appropriate when the stepparent assumes the daily role of the child’s parent, and the child’s noncustodial parent is no longer interested in retaining his responsibilities to his child. Although future dissolution of stepparent adoptions are permitted in New Jerset, no stepparent may initiate an adoption if he does not intend to remain a legal parent of the child forever. Above all else, stepparent adoptions must be in the best interest in the child, which is determined by the family court on a case-by-case basis.
New Jersey requires that the stepparent must be at least 18 years of age to initiate the adoption proceedings, and simultaneously be at least 10 years older than the child(ren) whom she wishes to adopt. However, under certain circumstances, a stepparent can request a waiver for the age requirement from the court.
Termination of Parental Rights
For a stepparent to adopt a stepchild, the child’s biological parent must voluntarily surrender his parental rights. This can be done through the family court in the county where the child resides. If the noncustodial parent refuses to surrender his rights, New Jersey allows for a nonvoluntary termination of rights if the noncustodial parent is deemed unfit in family court. Neglect and abandonment are factors the court will consider when determining if a parent is unfit. Failure to pay court-ordered child support is not a determining factor in a parent’s fitness, and the court is unlikely to consider this as a factor when making its determination.
For a stepparent to adopt his stepchild in New Jersey, he must demonstrate that he is committed to the care and custody of the stepchild. If the child is 10 years of age or older, she should appear at the adoption hearing to voice her preference in the matter. The court may also accept the preference of the child; however, the weight of the child’s preference as a factor in the court’s determination is at the sole discretion of the judge.
The stepparent who wishes to adopt his stepchild must seek the written consent of his spouse, the child’s custodial parent, prior to initiating the process, even if the spouses are separated. In the event that the stepparent has since divorced the custodial parent, the stepparent does not need consent, but both biological parents will either need to voluntarily terminate their respective parental rights first, be deceased or the parents will both need to be declared unfit and the stepparent will have to show just cause for taking custody of the child over other prospective relatives.
Filing for Adoption
The stepparent must file a Complaint for Adoption with the family court in the county where the child resides to initiate the formal adoption process. Appropriate notification of the complaint must be made to the child's other legal parent, who will have 20 days to respond and may contest the adoption in his response.