As you might imagine, in a family law practice, a lot of our work involves helping couples unwind their relationships. Even when this is a necessary step and best for them and their children, it can be a sad time. That is why we especially relish the times when our work gets to bring families together, such as with step-parent adoption.
Often when a step-parent comes into a child’s life, they become a true parent in every sense but the legal one: loving the child, supporting him or her financially and emotionally, and doing the hundred daily tasks that any parent does, like making meals, helping with homework, doing laundry, and running carpool. In such cases, the only thing left to do is to bring the legal relationship in line with the actual relationship. Let’s talk about what you need to know (and do) to adopt a step-child in Ohio.
How to Adopt Your Step-Child
Adoption is a serious commitment. It creates a legal relationship between the adoptive parent and child that is the same as if the child were born to that parent. If a step-parent adopts a step-child, and later divorces that child’s biological parent, he or she has the same right to pursue custody, and the same obligation to pay child support, as a biological parent would. If the adoptive parent were to die, the adopted child would have the same right to inherit from him or her as a natural child.
If you have undertaken to create this permanent relationship with your step-child, there are certain actions you need to take. It is usually best to have the guidance of an experienced family law attorney such as the attorneys at Melissa Graham-Hurd & Associates; in fact some counties, including Summit and Stark Counties, require the support of an attorney or agency, due to the complexity of the adoption process.
You need to file a Petition for Adoption in the Court of Common Pleas in the county where either the child resides, you (the step-parent) reside, or where the natural parent resides. In many step-parent adoptions, the child and step-parent reside in the same house already, so the county where they live is a natural choice in which to file the petition.
The petition includes information about your identity and circumstances, and that of your step-child. The exact information varies from county to county; some counties require a supplemental petition containing information about employment, your health, other children, a criminal background check, and other relevant factors. You will need to pay a fee along with filing the petition(s).
The petition starts a legal matter that will terminate the rights of the child’s other natural parent (the one who isn’t your spouse), so that parent will need to be served with a copy of the Petition for Adoption and notified of the hearing date on the petition.
In most cases, both natural parents must consent to the step-parent adoption. If you’ve gotten this far in the process, your own spouse is probably on board. So getting consent from the child’s other parent is what you need to be concerned with.
There are a few exceptions to the need for consent. For instance, if the child’s other parent has failed, without justification, to communicate with the child or financially support the child for a period of one year before the Petition for Adoption was filed, that parent’s consent is not required. Even a small amount of communication may be enough to require consent, so if you are not certain that consent is not required, check with your attorney. There have been several recent Ohio court cases regarding this issue of consent in a step-parent adoption.
For example, in a recent Ohio Supreme Court case, In re Adoption of B.I., the court said that where there is a judicial decree ordering that there be zero child support paid, the failure of a parent to pay support does not eliminate the requirement that that parent’s consent be obtained before a step-parent adoption.
If you pay child support, to ensure that the other parent’s new spouse cannot adopt your child and terminate your parental rights without your consent, be sure to make payments. If you have parenting time (visitation) rights, to ensure that the other parent’s new spouse cannot adopt your child and terminate your parental rights without your consent, be sure to have significant contact. Beware that if you fail to have contact with your child or fail to pay child support, your legal rights can be terminated without your consent.
Requirements for Step-Parent Adoption
There are other requirements in a step-parent adoption beside consent of the natural parent. Ohio is one of the few states that requires a home study in a step-parent adoption. A home study is a review to ensure that the intended adoptive placement is a suitable home for a child. If you are married to the child’s parent, and have already been caring for the child, the home study requirement should not be a problem. If you have concerns about what the home study involves, your family law attorney can reassure you.
Letters of reference are typically required in a step-parent adoption as well. These letters are from people who can vouch for the step-parent’s character and suitability as a parent, like friends, employer, and clergy. The step-parent seeking to adopt must also submit to fingerprinting and a criminal record check, and must submit a medical report from a doctor.
After all required documents have been submitted, the court will hold a hearing, during which the petitioning step-parent, his or her spouse, and the child will be interviewed by the judge. If the judge, after speaking with the parties, determines that adoption is in the best interests of the child, he or she will issue a decree of adoption. The decree may be final at the time issued, or may be temporary, automatically becoming final after six months. Once the adoption is final, the step-parent is the legal parent of the child, and the natural parent has no more legal rights or obligations to the child. (The child also will no longer inherit from the natural parent or grandparents by law.)
If you are considering adopting a step-child, we encourage you to contact our law office to learn more and to set the process in motion when you are ready!