In short, unless and until a stepparent legally adopts his or her stepchild, the stepparent has no legal right over the stepchild. To the contrary, biological parents are the only parents who have legally cognizable rights, including the right to make legal and medical decisions on behalf of the child.

When a biological parent marries the stepparent, the stepparent may enjoy some of the privileges as a parent (such as helping the biological parent raise the child), but these privileges are simply a virtue of the marriage. The stepparent has no legal rights just because he or she marries the stepchild’s biological parent.

If a stepparent and biological parent divorce, the two may agree to joint custody or a visitation schedule; however, because the stepparent never had legal rights to the child, the biological parent can revise this agreement at any time and without consequence.

Adoption of a Stepchild

When a biological parent remarries, especially when his or her child is still young, the child often develops a close relationship with his or her stepparent. Many stepparents view their stepchildren as their own biological children. A stepparent may also want to give his or her stepchild an inheritance or health benefits. In those instances, it’s not uncommon for a stepparent to want to adopt his or her stepchild.
Adoption is a legal process by which a non-biological parent becomes a legal parent. It requires the stepchild’s other biological parent to consent to the adoption as well as relinquish his or her parental rights. In that regard, the biological parent must sign an “Adoption Surrender” in the presence of two witnesses and a notary public. Finally, the stepparent must file a “Petition for Adoption” with the appropriate government agency.

What Rights Does a Stepparent Have After Adoption?

After a stepparent legally adopts a stepchild, the stepparent is recognized as the child’s parent and legal guardian under the law. The stepparent has the same rights as the biological parent.

What If One Biological Parent Refuses to Consent to the Adoption?

If one of the biological parents refuses to consent to the step-parent adoption, the other biological parent can bring a lawsuit in order to terminate his or her biological rights. One of the main grounds for such a lawsuit is "abandonment." Generally, abandonment means that the parent has been quite literally absent, failing to communicate with or support the child financially.
A biological parent can also try to terminate the biological rights of the ex-partner by claiming the person is unfit to be a parent or due to neglect.

What If the Non-Consent Parent Can’t Be Found?

Proving abandonment is much easier if the non-consenting parent has been absent for a long period of time. For example, when the non-consenting parent’s whereabouts have been unknown for a year or longer, many courts grant a stepparent the right to adopt the stepchild without consent of the absent biological parent. 

How Can I Adopt My Stepchild?

The adoption process varies from state to state, but generally includes the following procedure:

  1. Obtain consent from the biological parent to adopt the child. Consent is not necessary from a biological parent if that parent’s legal rights have been terminated.
  2. If the biological parent refuses consent, you will have to show the court that the biological parent’s rights should be terminated, such as proof of abandonment as discussed above.
  3. Prepare and gather all your documentation, including information on your relationship with the biological parent and the stepchild, your financial status, and your living situation.
  4. File a petition with the court. If the petition is consented to by both biological parents, both of those parents will also sign the petition.
  5. Attend hearings and comply with any court requests. The court may require interviews, family counseling sessions or home visits.

Should I Hire an Attorney?

The adoption process is complex. Speaking with a skilled family law attorney will help you understand the adoption process and your rights and obligations.