Adopting a stepchild can bring a new family or blended family even closer together. Completing a stepparent adoption, however, can sometimes be tricky, and the counsel of an experienced attorney may often be necessary.
How is a Stepparent Adoption Different than the Adoption of an Unrelated Child?
A stepparent adoption requires that the non-custodial birth parent of the child has his or her parental rights terminated. Generally, this means that the non-custodial parent will not have custody or visitation rights to the child as a parent normally would. There are two ways for the non-custodial parent to have their rights terminated: the birth parent can either voluntarily relinquish his parental rights or he can have his parental rights involuntarily terminated. If a birth parent will not consent to his parental rights being terminated, an involuntary termination becomes necessary.
How are Parental Rights Involuntarily Terminated?
As per the termination statute, a birth parent’s parental rights can be terminated based on several grounds, including: failing or refusing to perform parental duties for at least six consecutive months; incapacity of the parent; or abuse or neglect of the child. Additionally, it must be in the best interests of the child to have the birth parent’s rights terminated.
A petition needs to be filed with the court alleging one or more of the grounds listed above. After the petition is filed, a hearing will be held in front of a judge, and the party wishing to terminate the birth parent’s rights bears the burden of proving that the birth parent’s rights should be terminated and that termination is in the best interests of the child.
In the 1998 case of In re Adoption of Charles E.D.M., the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was tasked with determining whether a mother’s parental rights should be terminated. The mother had incredibly limited contact with her children for approximately five years, sending them only the occasional gift and calling them a few times per year. The court held that these actions did not rise to performing parental duties; however, the court did not terminate the mother’s rights because the natural father could not prove that termination of the mother’s rights was in the best interests of the children. Thus, the mother was able to exercise visitation rights as a natural parent of the children.
What Happens if Parental Rights are Terminated?
If the parental rights of the natural birth parent are terminated, the remaining steps to complete the stepparent adoption are largely the same as any other adoption. A petition for adoption will need to be filed and there will be a hearing, among a few other necessary steps. It is important to consult with an experienced attorney who is familiar with the local rules, as they vary from county to county.
If you are in Central Pennsylvania and want more information about stepparent adoption, or if you are a natural parent facing involuntary termination of parental rights, please contact us at 717.520.4400 to discuss your options.