If you or your spouse is a stepparent, one or both of you may consider adoption one day -- most likely, because you love your stepchildren to pieces and wish to solidify your blended family. But, as with all major life decisions, look before you leap. "Adoption is a lifetime of commitment and should not be taken lightly," says Lisa J. Marino, an attorney in Newton, Mass., who specializes in adoption and family law, and a fellow of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "All parents, including stepparents, must understand this and make sure it is the right decision for their family and child." A lot to think about for sure -- but worth considering if you want to make a strong family even more bonded. Few things say, "I love you and I choose you," like adoption.
Reasons to Adopt
Stepparents walk a fine line -- you or your spouse might live with your stepchildren, provide for them financially and weigh in on tough parenting decisions -- but when push comes to shove, you're not the "real" parent, and you may want to have your feelings and place in the family reflected legally. According to Marino, the reasons to adopt vary. It may be so a stepchild can receive an inheritance from the stepparent or so they can get health benefits. Other factors driving adoption include a stepparent's simple desire to formalize the relationship and have a say in decisions surrounding education and medical treatment. Marino also notes that adoption "can have a profound effect on the family's cohesiveness and the child's sense of belonging."
While it's exciting to imagine your family becoming more whole, it's important to think long and hard before adopting a stepchild. Ask yourself: "Am I (or we) doing this for the right reasons?" If you're planning to adopt your spouse's child or vice versa -- but you've been at each other like cats and dogs -- consider if this is the right time to make this type of mega-commitment. As Marino says, "Sometimes people think that adopting a stepchild will strengthen a floundering marriage. On the contrary, an adoption in the midst of a struggling marriage puts further stress on the marriage and does not prioritize the needs of the child."
Counseling and Classes
As you're gearing up to face a serious shift in the family dynamic, you may feel more secure and at ease if you and your spouse are as well-informed as possible. Counseling sessions or classes are a good way to prepare for the roller coaster of emotions that can come along with the adoption process. "Classes typically discuss birth parents, the ramifications of adoption, normal stages of childhood and how they intersect with adoption issues, as well as grief and loss issues," notes Marino. "Engaging in counseling with a seasoned adoption social worker or clinician experienced in these issues can help the biological parent and stepparent fully understand what an adoption will mean for them and for the child."
If you or your spouse has decided that adoption is the right move for you, congrats! By making this decision with thought and care, you've completed a big part of the process -- but there are still a few major steps you must take, according to Marino. First, the stepchild's other biological parent must consent to the adoption and relinquish his or her parental rights, which is done by signing an "Adoption Surrender" in the presence of two witnesses and a notary public. Then, you must file a "Petition for Adoption" along with any supporting documents. Lastly, if the stepchild is older than 12 years of age, she or he must agree to the adoption.
Sometimes there are those inevitable bumps in the road: If a stepchild's other biological parent is unwilling to give up parental rights, you may find you can't complete a stepparent adoption. As Marino advises, "In this situation, it is wise for a newly blended family to make contingency plans for the future in the event the biological parent of the child becomes incapacitated or dies. The biological parent should prepare a durable power of attorney and last will nominating the stepparent as an alternative guardian in the event the other surviving biological parent is unable to care for the child." This way, you can be sure that should the unthinkable happen, you can at least remain a part of your stepchild's life (or your spouse can be a part of your biological child's life) to provide the consistency and love she or he will surely need.