Adopting Your Stepchildren in New York
Attorney insights on New York stepparent adoption lawsBy Carole Hawkins | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on October 6, 2023 Featuring practical insights from contributing attorneys Robin D. Carton and Elizabeth A. Douglas
Use these links to jump to different sections:
- Why Stepchild Adoption is a Great Option
- When The Adoption Process Might Not Always Be the Best Fit
- What Happens if the Birth Parent Doesn’t Consent to the Stepparent Adoption
- Find a Family Law Attorney With Experience in the Stepparent Adoption Process
If you marry someone with children and help raise them, it already feels like you’re their parent. But should you make it official and adopt them?
Adopting stepchildren is a big decision, but it’s often a very happy one, says Elizabeth A. Douglas, owner of the Douglas Family Law Group in White Plains.
Why Stepchild Adoption is a Great Option
“The vast majority of stepparents adopt in order to close the loop within the family unit,” Douglas says. “They’ve spent a long time, sometimes years, raising the child, and it closes the loop on the family everyone has created together—and makes the arrangement a legally recognizable one.”
Many times, stepchildren themselves will ask to be adopted, especially after new brothers and sisters are born. Also, other children at school may be asking why siblings have different last names.
“It’s the final step that says, ‘I am a member of family X,’” Douglas says.
And adoption can be in the best interests of the child, giving them emotional stability that comes from feeling fully loved. But there are legal reasons for doing it, too. Without an adoption, a stepchild won’t inherit anything from someone who is not their natural parent unless specifically named in the will.
Also, if the birth parent were to become incapacitated, a stepparent who is not a legal guardian wouldn’t be able to make decisions affecting the child’s health and education.
When The Adoption Process Might Not Always Be the Best Fit
Still, adopting a child you care about is not a decision to be taken lightly, says Robin D. Carton, a partner at Carton & Rosoff in White Plains. Once you adopt that child, they are legally yours forever.
“If you’ve adopted your spouse’s child and the marriage ends, you may be responsible for paying child support to your former spouse because the child is legally yours,” Carton says.
What Happens if the Birth Parent Doesn’t Consent to the Stepparent Adoption
Another reason stepparents don’t always adopt is because the birth parents are still… well, the child’s parents. In order for a stepparent to adopt, the birth parent must either consent to the adoption—in court or outside of court—or the birth parent’s parental rights must be legally terminated.
“Even if the biological parent has had no contact with their child and has not been financially supporting them, they might not consent,” Douglas said. “Oftentimes, the absentee parent maintains a strong feeling that their ‘right’ as the biological parent should survive regardless of their actual involvement in their child’s life. Oftentimes, it is emotional, and there is usually some initial pushback about allowing another person or proposed new parent to take over what they perceive to be an absolute legal right—and they don’t want to lose that right.”
If a birth parent will not consent to the stepparent adoption, the adoption would be contested, adds Carton. But the process can be long, expensive, and traumatic for all parties. One must demonstrate that the birth parent has abandoned or neglected the child, Carton says.
“Adoption is a personal choice. There are many reasons that a stepparent may choose not to adopt, and every familial relationship is different,” she says. “For example, some children do not wish to be adopted, and consent is required by a child who is age 14 years of age or older. The child may not wish to hurt or confront the birth or legal parent, and may prefer to wait until he or she can be adopted as an adult—which would not require notification to the birth or legal parent.”
Find a Family Law Attorney With Experience in the Stepparent Adoption Process
When an adoption is finalized, it’s a time of celebration. A judge congratulates everyone, and the children are often presented with gifts, Carton says.
“Although there are many distressing experiences in family court,” she says, “adoptions are truly the silver lining.”
For more general information on the types of adoption, working with an adoption agency, background checks, home study, and other important matters, see our overview on adoption law or reach out to an experienced New York adoption attorney for legal advice.
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