Many stepparents have questions about adoption. They may want to adopt a stepchild for legal purposes or simply as an act of love and devotion towards them. In one sample of stepfamilies, stepfathers either attempted to adopt or did adopt their stepchildren in 10% of cases, whereas only 1% of women attempted to adopt stepchildren. (Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman, 1993) The difference is likely due to the fact that there are more absent biological fathers than mothers, which makes stepchild adoption easier.

Why adopt a stepchild?

Adopting a stepchild does confer several advantages. It gives you status as a legal guardian, which means you can make decisions on behalf of your stepchild. It’s going to mean less hassle at schools and doctor’s offices. It also establishes you as a permanent figure in the child’s life. For example, if something happened to your spouse, you would be able to retain your role in the child’s life as a parent. Otherwise, if something happens to your spouse, full custody automatically reverts back to the remaining biological parent and they simply slip from your life. It also gives you the typical rights of a biological parent in the case of divorce, though courts may still lean towards the biological parent in such cases.

There can also be psychological advantages to formal adoption. Adopting a stepchild sends the message that they aren’t simply excess baggage that came with your spouse. It tells stepchildren that you care about being their parent; that you are interested enough and committed enough to accept full legal responsibility in caring for them.

The problems & challenges involved in adopting a stepchild

Formally adopting stepchildren can be a tedious process, however, and in many cases it may be impossible. Adopting a stepchild is not like adopting an orphaned child: it requires the consent of the child’s other legal guardians or biological parents, and this is often hard to come by.

As one stepfather states, “My stepdaughter is four years old, and I am attempting an open adoption. But even though the child’s father has not seen her in three years, I still need to have his consent and to date he refuses me that right.” (ibid) Biological mothers rarely allow children to be adopted by stepmothers, as illustrated by the statistic cited earlier. This usually only happens in cases where the mother is either dead or institutionalized. So before you even start the process of adoption, you should check with all parties involved and find out what headwinds you might encounter.