Nearly one million couples in the U.S. will divorce this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Although many will find happiness again through a subsequent marriage, some children of divorce will lose touch with their biological parent along the way. Fortunately, when divorce or other factor breaks the bonds between parent and child, there is legal opportunity for stepparents to step in and fill the void through adoption.
Voluntary Relinquishment of Parental Rights: A Smooth, Straightforward Path to Stepparent Adoption
Courts are receptive to formalizing the relationship between a stepparent and their stepchild when a biological parent has voluntarily relinquished all parental rights. This is because courts generally recognize that it is always in the best interests of a child to have two stable, loving and responsible parents. In such a scenario, prior to filing formal adoption paperwork, stepparents must establish that the absentee parent has expressed a disinterest in parenting the child in question, going forward.
Prior to signing the paperwork which relinquishes parental rights, both biological parents must acknowledge what the relinquishment means. The relinquishing parent forfeits any future right to be consulted on any decisions regarding his/her child. In return, the relinquishing parent will have no child support obligation. Additionally, a minor child may not seek other monetary support or an inheritance from a biological parent who has relinquished his/her parental rights. The voluntary relinquishment of parental rights completely and permanently severs the legal responsibilities between a biological parent and his/her child.
Involuntary Relinquishment of Parental Rights
Far less harmonious are efforts to formalize adoption by a stepparent when a biological parent expresses a desire to remain in the life of their minor child. In such circumstances, a stepparent must establish that the biological parent has legally abandoned their child. Abandonment can be difficult to prove but in some cases can be proven upon a showing of failure to provide child support or communicate with their child for a prolonged period of time, normally in excess of one year. A stepparent can also move to terminate parental rights by proving that the child in question is not the biological child of the absentee parent. However, most states presume that a male married to a female at the time of a child’s birth is presumed to be the biological father.
When abandonment and parentage are not in dispute, stepparents can still move to involuntarily terminate a biological parent’s rights. In New Jersey, an involuntary termination is available upon a determination that such action is in the best interests of a child. Stepparents pursuing this approach must be prepared to demonstrate that the biological parent has physically or emotionally harmed the child or failed to provide the child with a permanent home. Additionally, an involuntary termination can occur upon a showing of that the biological parent has failed to address and correct problems previously identified by child protective services, or that the biological parent has been convicted of a child-abuse related crime or a crime involving murder or grave bodily harm.
Stepparents wishing to formalize their adoption of a stepchild should keep in mind that establishing only that a biological parent is unfit will rarely suffice in court. Instead, a stepparent should be prepared to prove that they are a superior choice. New Jersey law also requires that a stepparent is at least 10 years older than the stepchild they wish to adopt. A waiver to this requirement can be sought, however.
New Jersey Adoption Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Advise and Oversee Stepparent Adoptions
If you or a loved one is contemplating adoption of a stepchild, the New Jersey adoption lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. can help. Our experienced team routinely handles adoptions, including those requiring an involuntary termination of parental rights. Contact us online or call 908-575-9777 to schedule your appointment today.