Adopting Your Stepchildren in New York
When you should, and maybe shouldn’t, adopt your stepchildrenBy Carole Hawkins | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on May 1, 2023
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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.
“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 give a child the 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.
Adoption 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.
Another reason stepparents don’t always adopt is because the birth parents are still… well, the 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 natural 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 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 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.”
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 information on this area of law, see our overview on adoption law or reach out to a experienced New York adoption attorney for legal advice.
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