Are you thinking about adopting a stepchild?
Do you or your partner have a child by a previous relationship who lives with you? You may be thinking about how you can simplify the legal rights and responsibilities you both have for the children in your family.
This page outlines the options available to you and the process for making an adoption order, if you decide that this is right for your stepfamily.
You could qualify to adopt a stepchild if:
- you are aged 21 years or more.
- you have been living as a family for at least six months before applying for an adoption order.
- you can satisfy the court that you are living as with the child's parent in an enduring family relationship. The local authority social worker making their report about your suitability to adopt must have regard to the need for stability and permanence in your relationship with your partner.
This procedure applies to applications in relation to adoptive placements that have not been arranged by a local authority or registered adoption agency, other than children brought into the UK for the purposes of adoption. This will include adoption applications by step-parents,relatives,private foster carers or local authority foster carers who have not sought or obtained the local authority's approval for the placement becoming an adoptive placement.
Adoption has a number of advantages:
- Your family is recognised by law
- All its members can have the same surname if they wish
- The children share rights of inheritance with any other children of the family;
- Legal links with the previous family are cut
- You do not have to be married to adopt - you can also adopt as the partner of the child's parent
So, adoption can simplify the legal situation for stepfamilies. However it is important as a step-parents you think very carefully about whether adoption will help your family.
These are some of the disadvantages of adoption for stepchildren.
- If stepchildren are adopted, the law no longer recognises the other birth parent as having any parental links with the child. Also, half-brothers and sisters, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins on that parent's side will then be legally unrelated to the child. Your child will be legally cut off, not only from one of his or her parents, but from a large section of that parent's wider family too. This could be confusing or distressing for the child and obviously needs careful consideration. In recent years people have become more aware of how important it is for children to know about their origins. In non agency/ step-parent adoptions, too, it is important to make sure that, although legal ties may be cut, the child does not completely lose contact with the other parent and his or her relatives.
- If they are being adopted, the Children may feel that they have to choose between different adults who are all important to them. This is painful at the time and can lead to struggles as they grow older. All adopted children feel some sense of loss because their original parent gave them up to someone else.
Sooner or later an adopted child may blame their parent or step-parent for the loss of the other birth parent. Sometimes children idealise “lost” parents in their absence, remembering only the good things about the relationship. Alternatively, the children being adopted may feel rejected and that it was their fault the other parents went away. Uncomfortable feelings like this can undermine self-confidence and development.
- There may also be practical disadvantages to adoption. An adopted child loses any rights to maintenance or inheritance from the other birth parent or that parent's family (such as grandparents).
All mothers and most fathers have legal rights and responsibilities as a parent - known as parental responsibility.
Parental responsibility is the term for all the obligations parents have towards their children, both material and emotional, and for the rights parents have to take certain action on their children’s behalf for the benefit of the children (such as consenting to medical treatment and arranging education) .
The law encourages both parents to be involved in their children’s lives, even if their own relationship breaks down. If an application for an adoption order is made, the court has to consider whether making an alternative order, or no order at all, would be better for the child in the long run.
Parental responsibility agreement/order
A step-parent who is married to, or has entered into a registered civil partnership with, the parent of a child, may acquire parental responsibility for the child, sometimes without the need for a court order at all.
One way of doing this, if there is no dispute, is by a simple but formal agreement with the parent who is his or her partner, and the child’s other parent if he or she also has parental responsibility. Even if there isn’t agreement, the court can decide that it is right to make an order giving the step-parent parental responsibility.
With this agreement/order, the step-parent will share parental responsibility with the child's parents. Importantly, the step-parent can make decisions that a parent would be able to make, but the agreement/order does not cut the child off from one half of his or her birth family.
Child arrangements order
A court may make this order (previously known as Residence and contact orders) setting out with whom a child is to live or spend time This order settles the arrangement as to who the child is to live with. If a residence order is made for a person who is not a parent, it also gives that person parental responsibility, as well as the birth parents. So if a child arrangements order is made stating that a child is to live with his or her mother and stepfather, the stepfather would acquire parental responsibility. However, he does not have all the same rights as a parent, because this order does not give the stepparent the power to agree to the child’s adoption or appoint a guardian to act after his death.
In addition, while a child arrangements order stating where a child should live is in force, no one ( either parent or stepparent) is allowed to change the child’s surname or arrange for the child’s emigration unless all the people who have parental responsibility agree to this, or the court makes an order permitting this.
Special guardianship order
Special guardianship is a new legal option for when adoption is not suitable. This order gives parental responsibility for the child to a Special Guardian. But unlike adoption, the birth parents remain the child's legal parents and have limited parental responsibility.
A special guardianship order is rarely used in a step-parent adoption, but it might be suitable for children and carers who have cultural and religious difficulties with adoption. The CoramBAAF website has more information about this option.
You may wish to get independent legal advice for any of the options.
How do I adopt my stepchild?
1. Contact us
If you live in Northamptonshire you should contact the Northamptonshire Adoption Service on 0300 126 1008. The duty worker will take details from you and send you an information leaflet.
2. Letter of notification
If, having read the leaflet, you want to go ahead with your application for an adoption order, you must tell us in writing. Your letter must be dated, give the child's full names and date of birth and be signed by both applicants.
The letter should be addressed to the Registered Manager and sent via post or email to one of the following addresses:
Northamptonshire County Council
One Angel Square
We will acknowledge the receipt of the letter or email.
3. Welfare supervision
Once you have notified us, a social worker will contact you to visit you and the child as soon as possible.
The social worker will talk about what adoption means and what other choices you have, as well as the child's understanding of their family relationships. A social worker will complete all the reports needed by the Court with you.
Your social worker has to interview the absent birth parent and any significant relatives on his/her side of the family. The social worker may also talk to the child's school.
The step-parent will be asked to give consent to an enhanced police check (DBS) being made. Children's Social Care will also check their records as part of the enquiries.
4. Application to court
If you decide that you want to go ahead with an adoption application, you must go in person to the Court to collect an adoption application form. You should take any letters you have received from us.
You can now apply to the court.
5. Hearing date
Once your application has been made to the Court, we are given a hearing date and need to send a detailed report to the Court within the timescale agreed by the Court.
6. Court hearing
At the full Court hearing both applicants should attend with the child. The Court may decide on one of the following:
- an adoption order
- a parental responsibility order
- a child arrangement order
- a special guardianship order
Or it may decide not to make an order at all.
7. Adoption certificate
When an adoption order is made, an adoption certificate will be sent to you a few weeks after the hearing. This replaces the child's original birth certificate and both applicants will be named on it as the adoptive parents.
Further advice and support
You can get help from a number of organisations, including:
- HM Courts & Tribunals Service can give you general help about being a stepfamily as well as free information sheets and a publications list.
- The Law Society keeps a list of solicitors with experience in children's cases.
- Resolution ( formerly the Solicitors ‘Family Law Association) is a group of over 5,000 solicitors specialising in family law and resolving disputes in a non-confrontational way.
- CoramBAAF adoption and fostering academy can provide further general information and advice on adoption.