A good many blended families live together in this day and age without taking steps to legalize the arrangements. Your stepchild might have a solid relationship with his noncustodial parent, and everyone gets along well. You might not technically have a legal say in your stepchild’s future, but you and his custodial parent are on the same page.
But sometimes noncustodial parents are absent or are otherwise hurtful to the child. In such cases, a child might bond more closely with his stepparent than with a biological parent that he hardly ever sees. Adopting a stepchild means that you will have the same legal rights and responsibilities of a biological parent, such as being able to make educational, medical, and religious decisions on the child's behalf. Stepparent adoption is typically a bit easier than other types. Like many states, Tennessee relaxes a few of the usual adoption rules in this situation.
If you obtain the noncustodial parent's consent, adopting a stepchild can be a relatively simple matter of filing a petition, attending a class and appearing at a single court hearing.
General Steps for Adoption of Stepchildren
In Tennessee, you will need to file an adoption petition in the chancery or circuit court, depending on the county. The adoption petition may be filed in the county where you and/or your stepchild resides. Many courts have information packets available that tell people what forms they need to adopt stepchildren and how to file them. You may also ask court clerks for information on stepchildren adoption.
After completing and filing the appropriate forms, you may receive a date for a preliminary hearing, where a judge will ask questions of everyone involved in the adoption. In stepchildren adoptions however, preliminary hearings are often waived.
Voluntary Relinquishment of the Noncustodial Parent’s Rights
Keep in mind that stepparent adoption isn’t a three-way deal – you’re not giving the child an additional parent. The noncustodial parent must legally step aside for adoption to be possible. This can happen in one of two ways: You can ask the court to terminate the noncustodial parent's legal rights or he can voluntarily give them up. If he agrees to give up parental rights, the noncustodial parent makes a written, notarized statement to this effect which you provide to the court along with your petition to adopt the child. The noncustodial parent can revoke his consent any time until the court hearing.
Under Tennessee law, a parent can't consent to terminate his rights until the child is at least four days old. The parent’s responsibilities end with the termination of rights, so the noncustodial parent would no longer be required to pay child support. If the noncustodial parent is no longer living, simply present the court with a certified copy of the death certificate instead of the written statement.
Involuntary Termination of the Noncustodial Parent’s Rights
You’ll have to petition the court to terminate the noncustodial parent’s rights if she refuses to give consent, and you’ll need to present a legally supportable reason why the judge should do this. The most typical grounds are abandonment. Under Tennessee law, this means that the parent hasn’t visited the child or paid child support for at least four months before you filed the petition to terminate rights.
Tennessee statutes also address “token visitation” and “token support,” instances where the noncustodial parent has been paying just a little bit or visiting sometimes, but the consistency is not considered reasonable enough given his income and circumstances. This can be difficult to prove, so you might need the help of an attorney.
Serve the noncustodial parent with a copy of the petition, which should tell him that he has 30 days to respond, and that if he doesn’t respond, he’ll lose the matter by default – the court will sever his rights. If he does respond, the court schedules a hearing where both sides can present evidence and testimony to argue that the noncustodial parent’s rights should or should not be terminated to pave the way for the adoption.
Note that the legal rights of the custodial parent don't change in any way when the other parent’s rights are terminated, either voluntarily or involuntarily, or after the adoption goes through.
Consent of the Custodial Parent and the Child
The child’s custodial parent must also consent to the adoption, and if the child is age 14 or older, Tennessee law requires that he must do so as well. The custodial parent must give her consent in writing and be a party to the adoption proceedings – you are both named as plaintiffs in the adoption petition.
The child typically meets privately with the judge in his chambers rather than testifying in open court. Judges sometimes want to interview a younger child to get his feelings on the matter before proceeding, but only the consent of teenagers 14 or older is required.
Gaining the consent of all parties involved is typically the greatest hurdle to a stepparent adoption, but a few additional steps must be taken as well. The adopting stepparent must attend a class called “Parents as Tender Healers,” or “PATH.” The course takes about 30 hours and is provided by Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services.
Home studies are not typically required for stepparent adoptions. Normally, this study would involve a social worker coming to your home to observe the family dynamics and to make sure the environment is healthy and safe for the child. In the case of a stepparent adoption, however, it’s presumed that the child has already been living in the home for some period of time so the judge can, in his discretion, waive this requirement. In some cases, the stepparent might be asked to furnish health and financial records.
The Adoption Hearing
When all requirements are met, the court schedules a hearing to finalize the adoption. Other types of adoptions usually require a six-month waiting period, and the adoptive parent or parents must have an established residency in Tennessee during this time. But this requirement is typically waived in stepparent adoptions. Both the custodial parent and the stepparent must attend the hearing. Interviewing a teenage child often takes place at this hearing, so the child should attend as well. If the judge is satisfied that all of the requirements have been met, an adoption certificate or order will be issued. The certificate or order will list you as the legal parent of the child and, if you requested a name change in the adoption petition, the child’s new name.
Seek Legal Advice
Even if the process of adopting stepchildren in Tennessee is relatively simple, it's best to seek the advice of a legal professional given the seriousness of what you're asking for. You can find an attorney who specializes in adoptions in Tennessee on the website of American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (https://adoptionart.org/).