May 14, 2007

Adoptions: Stepparent adoption considerations

Any proceeding involving the termination of parental rights is rightfully complex. Stepparent adoptions are complicated, too, but they’re one of the least acrimonious aspects of family law and can be a lot of fun for family law attorneys. It’s a rare opportunity for us to help us create a family (as opposed to our more usual role of dissolving the bonds of one).

Technically speaking, what happens in a stepparent adoption is that a child’s stepparent (usually a stepfather, but not always) legally replaces the child’s biological parent in that role. This means a new birth certificate, with the adoptive parent appearing on the certificate along with the other biological parent. The legal rights of the biological parent end.

The child also becomes the stepparent’s legal child in other ways, too. The adoptive child will be treated just like a biological child for the purposes of inheritance when there is no will. (For example, my husband’s stepfather adopted him when he was four, and when his father died several years ago, my husband inherited his property just as a biological child might have — much to the consternation of some aunts and uncles who had tried to persuade the probate court my husband was not legally adopted.)

Although this is an easier process than an agency adoption, because so many important rights are involved, if you want to adopt your stepchild you’ll need to consult an attorney. (You can take a look at the requirements yourself in ORS Chapter 109.) DHS may waive a homestudy, but criminal background checks must be performed on all members of the adoptive household (except the biological parent). Each parent must consent to the adoption, and Oregon statutes require that specific parties be notified about the adoption, such as the parents of the party whose parental rights will be terminated. ORS 109(7)(b)(B).

In the petition for adoption, the parties have the option of requesting that the child’s name be changed to reflect the new family surname. There are good reasons for a child’s name to change or to remain that of his birth family, and this is an important consideration. If the child is old enough, it’s a decision he or she should be involved in making.

If the parents decide to not change the child’s name, it will be apparent to the child at some point that he is somehow “different” from the rest of the family. This could provide an opportunity for the parents to explain the adoption, something that might not be an easy conversation to have without prompting. But the primary benefit to keeping the name the same is if the child remains close to his biological parent’s family; it will provide an outward symbol of that closeness.

There are downsides to keeping the child’s name the same. The “difference” the child feels might make him feel as though he is not the stepparent’s “real” child, despite the extents the stepparent went to in order to adopt the child. (This is very true where the new couple has additional children who share their name, leaving the adopted child the odd man out in the family.) It might also hinder the ability of the adopted parent’s extended family to accept the adopted child as “one of theirs.”

On a personal note, my husband’s parents decided to change his name when he was adopted, and I asked him about it. He thought for a while, then responded that he felt the name change helped him bond with his stepfather, and that it helped his stepfather accept him, too. Later, without prompting, he added, “But you know…if I were to adopt a child, I would absolutely want him to have the same name.”