For the most part, adopting a stepchild is much like adopting any other child. In fact, sometimes the process can be expedited since the child and your spouse are related.
But the biggest difference between adopting a stepchild and any other adoption can often be the biggest hurdle to overcome: you need permission from the child’s other parent (provided they’re still living), and granting that permission requires them to give up all their parental rights. It’s easy to understand why it might be difficult to convince a parent to give that up.
On the other hand, giving up all parental rights also means giving up all responsibilities, including child support. If the other parent does not have a strong relationship with their child, they may even welcome an opportunity to stop making those payments.
In some cases, the other parent may recognize that surrendering their parental rights so the child can be adopted by the stepparent is in the best interests of the child, in which case they’ll be more likely to provide their consent. In order to voluntarily surrender their parental rights, the other parent will need to sign appropriate Court documents to surrender their rights and attest that they understand what they are doing in front of a Judge before the adoption can proceed.
If the other parent refuses to give up their parental responsibilities, and you can provide evidence that they are an unfit parent, you can have their parental rights terminated. It’s an extreme measure and it requires being able to meet a very high burden of proof. There are several bases to claim unfitness, but the more common issues that arise are abandonment, physical abuse or neglect, and/or significant drug use.
In order to prove abandonment, you must be able to demonstrate that the other parent has not communicated with the child, by no fault of your own, and they also provided financial support for the child for a defined length of time. In many cases, the Judge will want to see that the parent has been out of touch for at least several years, even if the statutory duration is a shorter period.
If you accuse the other parent of being an unfit parent, most courts will respond by conducting a fitness hearing, which it will use to determine whether the other parent has been abusive, neglectful, incarcerated, suffers from an addiction, or fails to visit the child. If parental rights are terminated, the Court can move on to the secondary issue of whether the adoption will be granted, which is a separate proceeding.
As explained above, obtaining the permission of the other parent (or having them deemed an unfit parent by the prevailing court) is just the first step. Once the Petition for Adoption is filed, the Court will also be appointing a Guardian Ad Litem to investigate the facts of the case and make a recommendation to the Court on whether or not the adoption is in the best interest of the child. The GAL also has very specific duties under the statute, and everything about the adoptions process must strictly adhere to the applicable laws. If it strays in any way, it could subject the adoption to being overturned later down the road, which could cause a lot of distress and/or damage for the child.
The basic takeaway from adoption law in Illinois is that you really need to have an experienced attorney handling these proceedings for you. There are several factors at play and procedures to complete, even for an “uncontested” adoption where one parent is agreeing to terminate his/her rights.
The attorneys at Sherer Law Offices have been providing legal representation for divorce cases, as well as all types of family law for more than 20 years. Our experienced divorce attorneys will take the time to really listen to your unique situation so that they can plan strategies that can best protect your best interests.