08 Jul A Guide to Step-Parent Adoption in Florida
An adoption can be a wonderful opportunity, both for the child that is being adopted and for the parent(s) that are adopting a child. Procedurally, though, this can be a difficult and lengthy process that can be very confusing for individuals not experienced with it or well versed in the legal complications surrounding it.
Relinquishment and Adoption
First and foremost, when we refer to an adoption, we are typically referring to the combined process of the “Relinquishment” of the birth parent’s rights, as well as the “Adoption” process. It is important to understand that, after the Relinquishment process (if it hasn’t already occurred) the child’s membership in the previous family has been severed. This process absolves the birth parent of all legal and financial obligations to the child. The child can legally becomes a member of the adoptive parent’s family after the relinquishment. While there are some circumstances in which the birth parents remain in contact with the child, in open adoptions for example, many result in the original parent never establishing contact with the child again.
While the relinquishment process severs, the adoption process creates a legal relationship with the adoptive parents rendering them the provider of the child in full (meaning the parent must take care of the child financially, mentally, emotionally, and so forth and care for the child’s well-being). Single children can be adopted, but sibling groups can also be adopted together. In fact, adults can also be adopted though this article will be focusing primarily on children under the age of 18.
Eligibility for Step-Parent to Adopt
Within the state of Florida, there are two main requirements for someone to be eligible to adopt in these situations. The prospective parent must be married to the legal parent of the child, and the prospective parent must be physically capable of caring for the child. Typically, both requirements are easy to meet; however, if you are permanently bedridden, for example, or have some significant disability that prevents you from caring for a child, you may not be eligible to adopt your stepchild. If, however, you meet these eligibility requirements, you can move forward with the next step of adopting your stepchild – petitioning.
In order to move forward with adopting your stepchild, you must file a Petition for Adoption in conjunction with your spouse. This petition can cover an array of information, but specifically also requires information on when and where the child was born. If the child’s name is to be changed (to take the last name of the adopting stepparent, for example), the petition may also ask what the child’s name will be changed to. The petition will likely also ask for information about the length of time that the adopting parent has lived with the child as well as for a statement about why the parent wishes to adopt the stepchild. Once you file the petition, the process of adopting your stepchild can begin.
Once the petition is filed, the absent parent (the child’s other parent not involved in the petition) has the opportunity to contest the adoption. This obviously does not apply if the other parent has gone through the step of relinquishing their parental rights. If the absent parent does not consent to the adoption, or if the absent parent cannot be reached, there are another series of steps that can be taken. If, however, the absent parent does not contest and consents to the adoption or has relinquished their parental rights, then the child will be issued a new birth certificate with any new name changes and with both the one original parent and the adoptive parent listed as parents on the form.
The process can be a bit trickier if the absent parent does not consent to the adoption. There are a few instances, though, when the consent of the absent parent is not even necessary. If the absent parent has, for example, executed a surrender document (relinquishment), and if this was witnessed by two people, then the absent parent’s consent is not needed. Furthermore, if the absent parent has engaged in behavior that endangered the child, or if the absent parent has done something that could directly threaten the well-being of the child or the siblings of the child, the consent may not be necessary to complete the adoption. Additionally, if the absent parent has abandoned the child, as determined by the court, then the consent is not needed. Finally, in some circumstances, if the absent parent has been incarcerated for a long period of time, their consent may not be necessary. There are other instances where the consent of the absent parent may not be required at all. Make sure to seek legal counsel from an attorney before moving forward with adopting a stepchild as these situations can be very complicated, and their advice may better help you determine if this does or does not apply to your case.
If the previously mentioned situations do not apply to your case, however, and the absent parent has not given consent to the adoption either by actively contesting it or because the absent parent cannot be located, and then there are still options. In the case that the absent parent cannot be located, there are several steps that must be taken by you and your spouse to, in good faith, establish contact with the absent parent. If these steps are taken and the absent parent still cannot be reached, then you can likely move forward with the adoption without the absent parent’s consent.
If, however, the absent parent is present and contests the petition, then there are a couple of situations where the absent parent’s legal rights as a parent can be (unvoluntarily) terminated. This can be done through court action if the absent parent has abandoned the child, or if the absent parent is found to be physically incapable of caring for their child and it is medically improbable that the parent ever will be able to physically care for the child. If the absent parent’s legal rights are terminated, then the adoption can continue without the consent of the absent parent. If none of these situations apply to you, and the absent parent, being physically present, contests your petition and maintains his or her parental rights, then you may not be able to adopt your stepchild. Again, it is highly recommended that you speak with an attorney to determine what your situation is and what the best course of action for you and your family may be.
There are a few other points relevant to the adoption of stepchildren that are worth noting. First, after the statewide legalization of same-sex marriage in Florida on January 6th, 2015, same-sex couples can now petition for adoption of their stepchildren, too. Previously, this was not possible as one of the criteria required to be eligible for stepchild adoption was being married to the child’s legal parent (something that was not previously possible).
Another noteworthy point involves the consent of the child. If the child being adopted is under 12 years of age, then the child’s consent is not required for the adoption to proceed. If, however, the child is 12 years of age or older, then the child must also consent to the adoption. In some cases, though, the judge may waive the child’s consent regardless of the child’s age. In general, if all goes well and the absent parent does not contest to the adoption, then you could conceivably become the legal parent of your stepchild within two or three months.
Whether or not the adoption can occur, it is important to consider what is best for the child at all times. Your circumstances be such that it would be beneficial to, or detrimental to, adopt your stepchild. Make sure you talk about your specific situation with your spouse and with the stepchild if they are old enough to understand. Lastly, regardless of your situation, it is highly advised to speak with an attorney before proceeding.