What to Know as a Stepparent Looking to Adopt


By Evan Compton, Divorce and Family Law Attorney

How we define “family” has greatly changed and now extends beyond the traditional idea of a married couple and their biological children. Many of us are familiar with the term “modern family.” The concept has become more common in the last 20 to 30 years—and is perhaps best recognized by some people thanks to the popular television show. Modern families represent diverse structures and arrangements that come together in many ways.

One scenario that encompasses the modern family—and one of the situations I frequently see as a divorce and family lawyer specializing in adoption—is when a stepparent adopts their spouse’s child.

Adoption is a special yet sensitive process. If you’re a stepparent who is ready to adopt, it’s important to understand the legal relationship between a child and their parent, as well as what to expect as you begin this journey. Keep reading to learn how you can prepare to formalize your lifelong relationship with your stepchild.

The Legal Relationship Between a Parent and Child

The law only recognizes legal relationships between a child and their parent(s)—the latter most commonly being biological parents. A stepparent does not inherently have legal rights, responsibilities or obligations for their partner’s child.

As a stepparent seeking to adopt, the first question you have to ask is, “Is the child’s other parent in the picture?”

If the answer is “yes,” then that parent must be contacted or notified to legally terminate their parental rights, enabling you to adopt.

If the answer is “no,” the law still requires you to attempt to contact that parent to either gain consent for adoption or to prove to the court that you tried to reach the parent but weren’t successful.

If the other parent has been out of touch for a long time, contact methods may include everything from searching military databases to checking social media accounts. In Illinois, there is the “putative father registry”—a required checkpoint when looking for a father. This registry lists men who may be biological fathers but do not have legal parental rights. By registering in the database, putative fathers gain the right to be notified—and potentially have a say in—the adoption of their minor child.

As soon as you’re ready to adopt, it’s important to find a lawyer who understands adoption law and can prepare everything you need to begin proceedings.

What happens once I gain consent?

Gaining consent is one of the biggest obstacles in an adoption. After you gain consent, the next step is to file an adoption petition. You must submit proof of the other parent’s identification and schedule a time for them to appear before the judge to testify to their consent. If the other parent cannot be located, you will need to demonstrate to the judge that you exhausted your efforts to find them and request a default. A default enables the adoption to move forward without that parent’s input.

Either way, once you file your petition, it’s time to visit the judge with your partner and child. This isn’t as scary as it sounds! The judge simply wants to meet your family in person, as a unit. A guardian ad litem will also be appointed to advocate for the child’s best interests and ensure you are fit to adopt. Their due diligence includes a potential home inspection or interviews with all involved adults, a background check, and research on things such as income and job stability.

What happens if the other parent won’t terminate their rights?

The court will intervene if the other parent is fighting to keep their rights. The court has the authority to terminate parental rights without consent. This usually happens if the parent in question has a history of child neglect, child abuse, drug or alcohol use, or prior criminal charges. Other circumstances also meet the threshold for termination of parental rights, including proof that a parent has been largely and voluntarily absent from their child’s life.

Once the court deems it appropriate to terminate parental rights, they still need to establish that your request for adoption is in the best interest of the child. This decision is not made lightly and requires thorough and invasive investigations and depositions.

What is an open adoption?

In some scenarios, a judge may recommend an open adoption. This could be a good solution for birth parents and adoptive parents who have a healthy relationship. An open adoption is an unenforceable “good faith” agreement that permits a birth parent to stay involved in a child’s life, even after their legal parental rights have been terminated. The level of involvement can range from in-person visits to regular written or verbal updates about the child.

To maintain an open adoption that doesn’t confuse the child, all involved adults must have strong communication, establish boundaries, uphold mutually agreed-upon commitments, and always put the child first.

Begin the Adoption Process Today

I understand that seeking adoption of your partner’s child is both an exciting and potentially nerve-wracking time. Sometimes, the process is easy, but other times, it can become drawn out and emotional. I am here to guide you every step of the way and help you begin a new chapter with your family.

If you’re ready to take the first steps toward adopting as a stepparent, please reach out today. I welcome the chance to meet with you at our new office at the Davis Center in Evanston or at our offices in Chicago, Lake Forest, or Oak Brook.

Schedule time with Evan

For a free consultation, call Stern Perkoski Mendez at (847) 868-9584 or contact us.