Adopting a Stepchild in North Carolina: What You Need to Know

Although the term “adoption” may suggest bringing a new child into the family fold, many adoptions involve an already-established family — that is, a stepparent becoming a stepchild’s full legal parent. Depending on the circumstances, a stepparent adoption may range from simple and straightforward to extremely complex. Read on to learn more about the stepparent adoption process in North Carolina and what you’ll need to do to get started.

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Why is Stepparent Adoption Important?

This type of adoption can provide both the child and the stepparent with important legal rights. These include:

  • The stepparent’s right to access the child’s medical records, pick the child up from school, and (along with the natural parent) make decisions about the child’s health, welfare, and well-being
  • The child’s right to inherit from the stepparent
  • The child’s right to be covered by the stepparent’s health insurance or other employee benefits
  • The ability for the parent-child relationship to continue even if the stepparent divorces the child’s natural parent

A stepparent adoption endures beyond marriage. If you and your stepchild’s other parent later separate or divorce, you retain the same legal rights as the child’s biological parent—including the ability to seek custody, visitation, and child support.

Qualifying for Stepparent Adoption

In North Carolina, a child can only have two legal parents. In some situations, there may be no legal barrier to adopting your stepchild and becoming one of their legal guardians. If your stepchild’s other biological parent is deceased, or if paternity was never established and the biological father is unknown, there won’t be another parent to object to the adoption. As long as the child’s biological mother consents to the adoption, the trial court will approve it.

However, if your step-child already has two legal parents, the other parent’s parental rights will need to be terminated before an adoption can take place. This can occur in one of two ways:

  • The biological parent consents to the adoption and fills out an agreement to that effect; or
  • The stepparent petitions the trial court to involuntarily terminate the biological parent’s rights.

To terminate a biological parent’s rights, a stepparent will need to show the following:

  • The biological parent has abandoned the child or failed to provide financial support for a specified period; and
  • Termination of the parent-child relationship is in the child’s best interests.

Because a biological parent’s rights are protected by both the federal and North Carolina constitutions, it can be a high bar to show that termination of this relationship is warranted. A stepparent can’t simply argue that they provide more financial support, are more stable, or have a better relationship with the child than the biological parent. They’ll need to show abuse, neglect, unfitness to parent, or a complete abandonment of the parent-child relationship. This means it’s far easier to pursue a stepparent adoption if you have the biological parent’s consent.

Steps for Adopting a Stepchild in North Carolina

There are two tracks to stepparent adoption in North Carolina — consent and non-consent. Both tracks require the trial court to wait at least 90 days before ruling on an adoption petition. They also require the trial court to make a decision within six months of the petition’s filing. (It’s also important to note that if the child sought to be adopted is age 12 or older, the child’s consent to the adoption is also required.)

What Paperwork Do You Need?

If everyone involved in the adoption consents, the matter may be handled outside of court. You’ll simply file the biological parent’s consent form along with your petition for adoption with the trial court. This petition should include your spouse’s consent to the adoption, along with your stepchild’s consent (if required).

After the 90-day minimum waiting period passes without objection, the court may approve the adoption and issue an adoption decree. This decree vests in the stepparent all legal rights, responsibilities, and obligations of a natural parent.

However, if the biological parent or anyone else with standing to object files an objection within this 90-day period, the trial court will schedule a fact-finding hearing to determine whether consent is required and whether adoption is in the child’s best interest. At this hearing, you’ll be asked to provide evidence supporting your claim that the biological parent’s consent is not required. You may also be asked to file written pleadings, including proposed findings of fact, to help the court make its decision.

The court will then issue an order addressing whether consent is required before it determines whether to approve the adoption.

What Costs are Involved?

To file a petition for adoption, you’ll need to pay a filing fee. As of December 2020, the filing fee for a claim filed in a North Carolina superior court is $200. You’ll also need to pay any costs associated with serving these pleadings on the respondents.

If you have an attorney assist in the process—and you should!—you’ll also need to pay legal fees. These fees can vary based on the complexity of the case, the prevailing hourly rate in your area, and whether the trial court’s order approving or denying the adoption petition is appealed.

Why Stepparents Need a Lawyer

Petitioning for adoption can be an emotionally fraught process. Any misstep could send the proceedings off course, especially if you’re hoping to persuade your stepchild’s other parent into consenting to adoption to avoid a drawn-out legal process.

As a result, it’s crucial to hire an attorney or law firm that has extensive experience in handling stepparent adoptions. An experienced attorney will know what trial courts are looking for when it comes to terminating parental rights or approving an adoption and can help move the case forward without muddying the issues.

If you’re interested in learning more about your stepparent adoption options, Weaver Bennett Bland can help. Our knowledgeable attorneys have decades of experience helping clients adopt their stepchildren and are familiar with the family law procedures of North Carolina. Contact us to set up a consultation to learn more about the services we offer.