Stepparent Adoption in South Carolina

family sitting together

Sometimes the law creates a family, as when a person or couple adopts a newborn through an agency or private adoption. And then there are times that the law simply gives formal recognition to a family that already exists. That is often what happens in a stepparent adoption.

Advantages of Stepparent Adoption

Blended families, like all families, face challenges. But something wonderful happens when a person who choses a spouse chooses their spouse’s children as well. If a child was very small when their parent remarried, the stepparent may be the only mother or father the child has ever known. Regardless of the age of a child, a stepparent often comes to feel like a “real” parent.

The problem is that feelings don’t create a legal relationship. A stepparent who has cared and supported a child almost since birth has no legal rights regarding the child unless and until they adopt. If the spouse who is the biological parent were to suddenly die, the child’s biological relatives might well get custody of the child, with the stepparent not even getting visitation rights. This could be devastating not only for the stepparent, but for the child.

However, if the stepparent adopts the child, they have the same legal rights regarding each other as any parent and child, including:

  • The right for the parent to make medical and educational decisions for the child;
  • The right to inherit from each other under law;
  • The right to government benefits in the event of the parent’s death;
  • The right to custody and visitation;
  • The right to child support.

Most people don’t focus on custody, support, or inheritance rights when they call our office to ask about stepparent adoption. They just want to be a family, officially and forever. Let’s talk about how to make that happen in South Carolina.

Termination of the Natural Parent’s Rights

Stepparent adoption is relatively simple compared to many forms of adoption: the child probably already lives in the stepparent’s home, so there is no need for a home study. Court filings are simpler; for example, there is no need to file an accounting of expenditures related to the adoption. In addition, there is no required 90-day waiting period as there is with other types of adoptions. But in order to grant the stepparent the legal rights of a parent, those legal rights must first be extinguished in the natural parent whose role the stepparent would be assuming.

A natural parent may choose to relinquish their parental rights by signing a consent form, or those rights can be terminated. Some parents are willing to relinquish their rights because doing so also releases them from child support obligations in the future, or simply because they realize that transferring their parental rights is the best thing for the child.

If a natural parent is unwilling to relinquish their parental rights to allow a stepparent adoption to proceed, the other parent and the stepparent can petition the court to have those rights terminated. The family court can terminate parental rights if doing so is in the best interests of the child and it finds grounds to do so, such as one of the following:

  • The parent abandoned the child;
  • The parent has wilfully failed to visit the child for at least six months and was not prevented from visiting by the custodial parent or a court order; and/or
  • The parent has willfully failed to support the child for at least six months;

Once the natural parent’s rights have been terminated, the stepparent adoption process can move forward.

South Carolina Stepparent Adoption Process

In addition to terminating the natural parent’s rights, a stepparent must, of course, obtain their spouse’s consent to the adoption. If the child being adopted is 14 or older, the child must consent to the adoption as well. A petition is then filed with the court to begin the adoption.

Adoption is only permitted if it would be in the child’s best interests. In order to ensure that it is, a Guardian ad Litem (law guardian) will be appointed. The GAL performs an investigation and reports their findings to the court. While this may sound intimidating, in most cases the GAL investigation is straightforward and supports the stepparent adoption.

There is typically one hearing between the filing of the petition and the adoption being finalized. In some cases, especially those in which the natural parent consents to the adoption, the adoption may be final in six months or less.

It is usually best to have the help of an experienced South Carolina family law and adoption attorney to complete a stepparent adoption. An attorney can help in complicated situations, such as when the natural parent contests the adoption or the natural parent’s whereabouts are unknown. Even in more straightforward cases, an attorney’s help ensures that documents are completed and filed correctly and that the process moves ahead smoothly.

If you have questions about adopting a stepchild in South Carolina or contesting a proposed stepparent adoption, we invite you to contact Brinkley Law Firm to schedule a consultation.

Categories: Adoption