Not surprising perhaps, stepparent adoption is the second-most-common form of adoption in the United States behind foster parent adoptions. A stepparent adoption refers to the assumption of the legal role of a child’s mother or father in the absence of the child’s biological parent. Stepparent adoption may happen as a result of a divorced parent remarrying, and the child’s natural parent is either unwilling, unable or legally declared unfit to fulfill the parental role. There are other circumstances where a stepparent adoption occurs after the death of the child’s biological parent to whom the other parent was married or, less often, after the divorce of a stepparent and biological parent. The choice to enter into a Step Parent Adoption is a serious matter with long-standing consequences. After the step parent adoption is granted, the step parent is considered the legal parent of the child and responsible for all support and needs of the child. This responsibility would carry through even in the event that a divorce was to subsequently occur. Although future dissolution of stepparent adoptions may be obtainable in New Jersey, no stepparent may initiate an adoption if he or she does not intend to remain a legal parent of the child forever. The Family Court in New Jersey must act in the best interest of the child in determining whether stepparent adoption is appropriate. The Judge may also consider the child’s preference, but it is not the sole factor that the Court will look at in determining whether a stepparent adoption is appropriate.
New Jersey does require that the stepparent be at least 18 years of age to initiate the adoption proceedings, and must also be at least 10 years older than the child(ren) whom he or she is seeking to adopt. Under certain circumstances, the Court can choose to waive this requirement. In order for a stepparent to adopt a stepchild, the child’s biological parent must either voluntarily surrender his parental rights or be forced to surrender their rights if the noncustodial parent is deemed unfit in family court. Neglect and abandonment are factors the court will consider when determining if a parent is unfit. However, the biological parent’s failure to pay court-ordered child support is not a determining factor in a parent’s fitness, and the court is unlikely to consider this as a factor when making its determination.
The stepparent who wishes to adopt his or her stepchild must garner the support of both biological parents, not just the parent they are seeking to replace. In the event that the stepparent has since divorced the custodial parent, the stepparent does not need consent, but both biological parents will either need to voluntarily terminate their respective parental rights first, be deceased or the parents will both need to be declared unfit and the stepparent will have to show just cause for taking custody of the child over any other prospective relatives, such as biological grandparents, older siblings, or aunts and uncles.