Have you ever heard of an “instant family?” If not, I’m happy to share. An instant family is formed when a person marries someone who already has children – essentially the non-parent of the two spouses has an instant family of step-daughters and/or step-sons. Some of these transitions are wonderful and the new step-parent has a great bond with the children. Of course, it’s expected that there will still be the occasional “You’re not my mom!” and my personal favorite – the silent treatment. (As an aside, that tactic never really got me anywhere. I think parents are more than happy for their kids to stay quiet for a while. I know my husband would pay good money to see that happen in our relationship.)
So if you really love your step-kids, to the point of wanting to adopt them, you may be able to make that idea of a nuclear family a reality. If the biological mom or dad voluntarily consents to the adoption, you’re really quite lucky, because most people will not agree to a complete severance of their parental bond.
Michigan statute MCL 710.51(6) provides for the terms and conditions of a step-parent adoption. The proposed new mom or dad must be married to the parent who has legal custody of the children. Some courts require that the parents be married for a certain period of time, for example, 6 months or 1 year, just to ensure that the couple is serious about staying together. The biological parents can either be divorced or never married to each other. If they were never married, then the dad must have acknowledged paternity, or if he’s considered a putative father, he has to have formed a custodial relationship or supported the child.
Let’s say the bio dad or mom won’t agree to the voluntary termination of his or her rights. Conveniently, the court can do that for him if two conditions are met: 1) despite being able to do so, the non-custodial parent failed for two+ years “to provide regular and substantial support for the child” or didn’t comply with a support order, and, 2) the non-custodial parent hasn’t really visited or communicated with his kids for two or more years, even though he had the ability to do this also.
The two years tolls backwards from the date the step-parent files the petition to adopt the children, but the court can look at other periods of time in addition to those two years.
If the step-parent succeeds in adopting the kids, he becomes the children’s parent in every sense of the word. If the couple gets divorced in the future, then the “new” mom or dad has the same right to fight for the children for custody and parenting time as if they were biological children. Child support will still be calculated and both parents are fully expected to financially care for their children, although adoption does not automatically terminate the biological parent’s responsibility of child support. In fact, a recent Michigan Supreme Court opinion, DHS v. Beck (In re Beck), 488 Mich. 6, decided December 20, 2010, affirmed a trial court’s decision to continue a father’s child support obligation even though his parental rights were terminated. It seems unfair in some cases, but Michigan Supreme Court opined that “even after a parent’s rights have been terminated…MCL 722.3 indicates that a court has the discretion to terminate or modify a parent’s obligation to provide support, but is not compelled to do so.” It is fairly common, however, that the child support obligation is terminated, especially if it’s a step-parent adoption.
As a last resort, and if step-dad or step-mom fails to adopt the children under MCL 710.51(6), the biological parent’s rights could still be severed under the Juvenile Code.
It’s a pretty big commitment to adopt your step-kids, and I think it’s a wonderful idea if the situation is right. Raising a child takes a lot of patience and effort on the part of all parents involved, and the child can benefit immensely from the support of a step-parent, whether he or she adopts the child or not. Don’t expect that support and love to automatically end the door slamming and curfew breaking – that’s called being a teenager.
*The author would like to thank attorney Susan M. Dehncke for sharing some of her expertise in adoption law.
Courtesy of Jackson County Legal News, 5/26/11, Vol. 47, No. 48