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Why stepparent adoption may be the right choice

Marriage and family relationships are complex and powerful bonds that are difficult to express in words. Yet, having a legal definition that reflects your family status can be an essential security blanket and reinforcement of bond. If you've forged a strong connection with your stepchild, living together as a family -- and being married to the child's mother or father -- doesn't offer the same legal protections as adoption.

A validation of relationship

Adoption removes "step" from the discussion, giving legal caretaking rights and delivering a powerful message of commitment. Many children are insecure of their new family dynamics and, if you've connected, adoption makes the family relationship official.

Guardianship rights

While all family dynamics come with challenges, there are extra levels of guardianship within a blended family. If there is a medical emergency or an issue at school, consultations with the birth parent may be needed before you can act. Some birth parents are threatened by a stepparent, and resolving even minor issues can be more challenging than expected. When parental rights are legally transferred through the adoption process, decision-making is streamlined.

Inheritance

Living together as a family may feel sufficient, but if your spouse dies, you are not the legal guardian of your stepchildren, the remaining birth parent is. The children could move away regardless of the connection you've made. If there are questions about the other parent's capabilities, this can lead to stressful legal cases that hurt both the financial and psychological well being of the children.

Conversely, the law also states that if a parent dies, assets are distributed to the spouse and children first. Stepchildren do not receive these benefits by default, so if something happens to you, your stepchildren would be overlooked in the process. Adoption can guarantee that life insurance or distribution of property is shared with all your family members, regardless of birthrights.

How do I adopt?

The most important factor in adopting stepchild is the relationship between birth parents. Different relationships require different legal processes. Adoption of a stepchild removes the birth parent of all legal rights, so this is sometimes done willingly and is other times contested.

The simplest method is to gain consent from the birth parent. This is often achieved by proving a strong family bond and emphasizing what is best for the child's needs.

Other options remain in contested adoptions.

If a birth parent is absent and out of communication, referred to as "abandonment," rights can be terminated. This includes failure to provide child support for a sustained period.

If a parent is proven unfit through a hearing, consent is not needed, but is granted by the court. This is typically determined in cases of abusiveness, addiction, incarceration, or other conditions that limit a birth parent's ability to provide for the child.

The first step of a healthy family is living in a harmony, but there are reasons to take extra steps to set up the legal safety nets. Families experience hardships together, and having everyone on the same legal terms simplifies the process. While your household may feel and function the same as if you are living with your birth children, the law still measures by the "step" qualifier, which can be removed through the adoption process.

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