When you marry someone who already has a child from a former relationship, you’re making a commitment to the child, as well as to your spouse. You’re choosing to give the child love, a stable home and as bright a future as possible. However, as a stepparent, even if you may have the same day-to-day responsibilities as a biological parent, you don’t have the same legal rights.
If you expect to be deeply involved in shaping the child’s future—by making decisions about the child’s care, education and health—you might want to file for stepparent adoption or guardianship. Both these options give you rights that you don’t have otherwise.
Adoption can be a good way to gain parental rights if the child’s other birth parent agrees to waive their parental rights or is no longer in the picture. Perhaps the biological father left before the child was born. Perhaps the mother passed away. Whatever the reason, if your adoption is uncontested, you will become the child’s second parent. You’ll gain the same legal rights and responsibilities as a biological parent, and you’ll give the child the same legal inheritance rights as if he or she were your biological child.
It is possible to pursue adoption even if the other parent doesn’t consent, but this route can be considerably more difficult and contentious. If the other parent refuses to give their consent, you might be better off filing for guardianship.
You can become a child’s legal guardian without forcing anyone to give up their parental rights. As a child’s guardian, you gain many of the same rights as a parent. You can make daily decisions about the child’s care, education and medical treatment.
There are some limits to a guardian’s rights, and you may still need court permission to give a child antipsychotic medication, request unusual medical treatment, move out of state or place the child in certain treatment facilities.
Be there when it counts
You made a commitment to your spouse and stepchild because you love them and plan to spend your lives together. But life is full of surprises, and some of these may put you in a position where you need to make decisions for a child that you cannot make without legal rights. Acting ahead of time to solidify your ties to your new child can take some stress and the strain out of those challenging times. It can help you be there for your child when you’re needed most.