Stepparent Adoption Q & A
(Updated for 2016)
Are adoptions done in Municipal Court or Superior Court?
Superior Court, where more serious legal actions are heard. Municipal court is for simpler legal matters (traffic tickets, petty crimes, et cetera).
What county do we adopt in?
Generally, you can only adopt in the county in which you live. Some counties have multiple regional courts, and if that is the case, you must usually file your Adoption Request, and set your final hearing, in that courthouse. The court filing fee is $20.00.
Do we have to live in the county for a particular time before we can file our Adoption Request (previously called the Petition for Adoption) with the Court?
No. It is only required that you are actual residents.
Do we have to be married a certain time before we file our Adoption Request?
California law does not require a minimum time period, so the answer is "no." Some counties "recommend" a minimum period of time to be married, or cohabiting, such as one year, but these appear to be unenforceable and are only suggestions so the parents and the child are certain of their decision.
Why is there an investigation (often called a home study) before the adoption is approved? What does it consist of?
The county and state want to make sure the child's best interests are served by the adoption being granted and creating the parent-child relationship. It is almost unheard of for a parent to be denied. There will be a criminal history check of the adopting parent. Some counties do this by fingerprinting and some do not require fingerprinting (instead just checking the criminal data base). A questionnaire will be completed by the adopting parent to gather basic information.
Is there an investigation into the spouse of the adopting parent (the biological parent of the child who is retaining their parental rights)?
No. They are not required to go through the fingerprinting process, et cetera.
Is there a fee by the county for the investigation?
Yes. Each county has a different fee and you must file in the county in which you live. The home study fee is not included in our $1,500 legal services fee. Here are the fees for each local county:
- Riverside County $344
- San Bernardino County $700
- San Diego County $270
- Orange County $700
- Los Angeles County $700
There is a great new law effective January 1, 2017 that allows you to not use the usual county's governmental investigator (usually slow and cumbersome) and instead select a private adoption agency or licensed social worker to do the investigation (which is much more streamlined and faster). Most agencies and social workers charge $700 regardless of the county in which you live. The fees above only apply if you select the county investigator option. Learn more about this new law below (at "How long does it take to complete a stepparent adoption?")
What if the adopting parent had a criminal problem, like a DUI several years ago?
It is very rare for such an occurance to deny a stepparent adoption, unless it was for a serious issue. People are not expected to have never made a misstep in life. Usually, if someone has made a past mistake, such as a DUI, the question will be "did he or she learn from their mistake and have taken steps not to repeat it." However, if the issue was one related to their character and child-caring abilities, such as child abuse, spousal abuse, et cetera, then yes, it could result in a recommondation to not grant the adoption.
What about if the adopting parent had a bankruptcy?
Bankruptcy is not a bar to adopting. The county will simply want to make sure it is evident that the adopting parent and their spouse (the existing parent) can adequately meet the child's needs and are now properly managing their resources.
Do we need the absent parent's consent?
Yes. There is a specific Consent to Adoption form. It must be authenticated in a specific way (such as notarization). It is filed with the court, and a court-conformed copy given to the assigned stepparent adoption investigator.
What if the absent parent can't be found, or declines to sign a consent?
These are both common circumstances and in many cases can be handled by an experienced adoption attorney without significant cost. There are many factors, however. Let's assume the absent parent is the birth father (which is the case in most stepparent adoptions). There are two categories of birth fathers under California law: alleged and presumed. Their legal status is determined by their relationship with the mother and/or child.
Speaking generally, if the birth father was never married to the mother, is not named on the child's birth certificate, or has never had the child in his home, he is considered an alleged father. Technically, his written consent is not required, but the court will require proof that proper notice of the adoption and alleged paternity was served upon him.
If the alleged father can't be found, or declines to consent, after notice to him or reasonable efforts to give notice, an action can be brought to terminate his rights. Unless he is objecting in court, this action is usually a basic one for an attorney who has adoption experience. However, if the birth father goes to court to fight, the court will examine his past behavior regarding if he acted promptly and responsibly in meeting the needs of the child. If he did act responsibly then the court can only terminate his rights if he is found unfit. However, if the birth father did not act responsibly, then the court can rule against him simply by applying a "best interests of the child" standard. This hearing is only required if the alleged father is actively objecting, however. If he can't be found, or is found but declines to consent, there is a way an experienced adoption attorney can terminate his rights without any trial at all, simply based upon submitting legal pleadings. This makes the cost very moderate. Not all attorneys know the "shortcut" way, however.
The law is different for presumed fathers, who have stronger rights. A father is usually considered presumed if he was married to the mother, is named on the birth certificate or ever had the child in his home. The most common way to terminate the rights of a presumed father, if he refuses to consent, is to bring a Freedom from Parental Custody and Control action against him. The most common ground used is called "abandonment." The abandonment (typically showing no contact with, or support for, the child) can be based upon periods as short as six months or one year, based upon the facts of the case
Termination of parental rights is a complicated subject so the information is a basic summary and does not cover every possible scenario. You need an attorney to understand the issues fully.
What legal documents are required by the court?
The process starts by preparing and filing the Adoption Request, with the required ICWA attachments (see below). After working with the court investigator through the completion of the final court report, filing the absent parent's Consent to Adoption (or termination of parental rights pleadings and court order), the attorney then files a Memorandum to Set to request a finalization hearing date, verifies the VS-44, and prepares the Adoption Agreement (signed by the adopting parent, his spouse, the judge, and the child if aged 12 or older, and the Adoption Order (signed by the judge).
What is the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA)?
The ICWA is a state and federal law which states that if the child is a member, or eligible for membership, in a Native American or Eskimo tribe, special rules and laws apply when the child is adopted. The adoption becomes much more complicated. The tribe at issue must be given notice of the planned adoption, and has the right to object. For example, if we are seeking to terminate the rights of an absent parent, John Jones, and he does not want to agree to the adoption, he may seek the support of his tribe to object to the adoption. The subject is too complicated to explain here in a short Q and A, but fortunately, it is not applicable in most adoptions. (Many people have a tiny bit of Indian blood, but it is often not enough to be eligible for tribal membership, thus normally making the ICWA a non-issue after tribal inquiry.) In the rare instances when it does apply, however, it is a significant legal issue and can make the adoption more difficult to complete.
Do we give up future child support after the adoption that the absent parent has been paying in the past?
Yes, the absent parent's obligations for future child support end when the adoption is granted. This is one reason why the majority of absent birth fathers make the adoption easier by signing a consent to adoption when they learn their support obligation will end. If the absent parent is past due on child support, the adoption does not normally forgive that past-due debt, however.
Do we have to appear in court when the adoption is granted?
Yes. The adopting parent, their spouse (the child's biological parent) and the child must normally appear at the finalization hearing (unless military duty makes it impossible, then there can be an exception). The absent parent whose rights have been severed by this point in time does not appear, of course, and is not given notice of the hearing. The finalization hearing occurs after the county investigation report has been filed approving the adoption. The hearing is private and closed to the public, but you can bring guests. It is very casual proceeding, more like a celebration, so much so that cameras are permitted in court to commemorate the day.
Does the child have to consent to the adoption?
If the child is 11 or under, then no, his or her written consent is not required. If age 12 or older, the child must sign a consent to the adoption. (Usually the ceremony of this signing is quite touching and means a great deal to a child.) Even when the child is under 12, however, the investigator will talk to the child in a joint casual meeting with you to make sure he or she supports the adoption, and thinks of the adopting parent as "dad" or "mom."
Do we have to use an attorney to do a stepparent adoption?
No. You can file on your own, called "in pro per." Some people have successfully completed their stepparent adoption without an attorney when there were no particular legal obstacles to overcome. However, even in uncontested adoptions, there are a lot of important legal issues involved. Dealing with the absent father to obtain his consent can be an emotionally tricky process for both of you, and a good adoption attorney is experienced at explaining the benefits to him of signing the consent.
Just one trip to the courthouse, waiting in line to file a document, and getting turned away because it was not done correctly, even assuming you found the right forms, is usually all it takes to demonstrate how complicated and frustrating the court system can be for non-attorneys. Since the formation of your family is so important, and a stepparent adoption can cost as little as about $1,500 for an experienced adoption attorney, most families elect to use an attorney.
How do we select an adoption attorney?
It is recommended to find an actual adoption attorney, as adoptions are unique from general family law cases, which is primarily divorce and child custody. Different Family Code statutes cover adoptions than divorce-related matters. There are two excellent and highly respected organizations of adoption attorneys: The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys and the Academy of California Adoption Lawyers. Membership in either is not easy to obtain as requirements are strict. You can also check with the California State Bar (calbar.org) to learn how long the attorney has been practicing law and if there have been any disciplinary proceedings against him or her.
Before you arrange a personal or phone consultation, try to get the attorney on the phone just to get a feel for their personality and knowledge. Some attorneys are sadly known for never returning their client phone calls, or at least not promptly. If they are too busy to talk to you now, when they want you as a client, think how hard it will be to get them on the phone later, when they already have your money.
Do we get a new birth certificate for the child changing their name? Does this cost extra?
Yes, you get one, and no, there is no extra fee. The amended birth certificate can also list the adopting parent as the birth parent, and can change the child's name (usually if the adoptive parent is the father and the family wants the child to have his last name).
How does a stepparent adoption affect the rights of the custodial parent? For example, if Mary is the mother of the child and her new husband, Steve, is adopting the child, are Mary's rights affected?
No, the spouse who is the biological parent (Mary in the above example) does not lose her parental rights.
What obligations are the adopting parent incurring?
In adopting the child, the adopting parent is agreeing to assume the same obligations he or she would incur as if the child was born to him or her. This includes the obligations to provide for the child's needs, and the right of inheritance.
Does the Federal Adoption Tax Credit apply to stepparent adoptions?
No. Unfortunately, the Federal Adoption Tax Credit does not apply to stepparent adoptions. The reason for this is the credit was created to encourage adoption for a child who does not have a parent, eliminating foster care, et cetera.
How long does it take to complete a stepparent adoption?
The process starts with preparing and filing your Adoption Request, and your attorney then serves it on the assigned investigator. The investigator will then send you a letter asking for a certified copy of your marriage license, the child's birth certificate and a court conformed copy of any divorce decrees if applicable. What most people and even some attorneys don't know, however, is that the county's investigator will normally not start to actively work your case until he or she receives either the absent parent's consent to adoption, or a court order terminating his rights. Starting from that time, the usual wait to receive their final report to the court to grant the adoption is usually 6-12 months. Much depends upon how many cases the investigator has pending at a given time.
*****A new option exists starting January 1, 2017 due to a change in the Family Code. It is now required that each county accept an investigation by a private adoption agency or licensed social worker. The typical cost is $700, which is the same as some counties, more than others, see above fees per county when you use the county investigater.
Using a private entity, rather than the county governmental option, can be much, much faster. Many counties average 6-12 months for the investigation, then another 6 weeks or so waiting for the final court appearance. Some counties are even longer than 12 months. But when using a private entity under the new law, the investigation will usually only take 3-4 weeks, with the same six weeks waiting for a court date.
So this new option can be as much as 12 months faster. (Technically, this private entity option was available in the law in past years, but because it was optional for counties to accept, most did not. Now, it is mandatory that they accept this option.) The only downside is that if you reside in a county that is less than $700, you are paying a few hundred more if you select this option. If you don't mind waiting longer to finalize your stepparent adoption, you can still select the county's investigator. If your county requires fingerprinting, you will have that fee whether the investigation is done by the county or a private entity.
* * * * *
We are aware that finding the above information is almost impossible for non-attorneys to find. And sadly, most attorneys do not make this information obtainable, perhaps in a desire to make you retain them to learn the above facts. It is our goal at The Stepparrent Adoption Center that your have a successful stepparent adoption, whether you retain us, or somone else, so we hope this information has been helpful.
We highly respect Yelp as an impartial information-sharing source for the public, so please take a moment to click on the link below to share your thoughts on this page. Thanks and best wishes!
The Q & A above is intended to give detailed but impartial information about stepparent adoption, thus does not include any information about our services or fees. For those who wish to learn that, however, the questions and answers continue below.
Why should we hire you as opposed to another attorney?
The Stepparent Adoption Center is the business name for attorney Randall B. Hicks. He limits his practice to adoption and has done so for 31 years. He was a member of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys from 1992-2016 until he had to regretfully end his membership due to not having time to attend required conferences. He is the author of several highly-claimed adoption books explaining how to plan an ethical, affordable and loving adoption: Adopting in America: How To Adopt Within One Year; Adoption: The Essential Guide; and Adoption Stories for Young Children. (These books deal with traditional adoption, not stepparrent adoption.) His new book, STEP PARENTING: 50 One-Minute DOs & DON'Ts for Stepdads & Stepmoms is one of Amazon's most popular step parenting books. He has worked with the California state legislature on pro-adoption laws. He has dedicated his entire career to adoption.
What are your fees to do a stepparent adoption?
Randy charges a flat fee of just $1,500 for an uncontested stepparent adoption. (Uncontested means the absent parent signs a consent to adoption, and there are no complications like the Indian Child Welfare Act.) The majority of our cases are handled for just the $1,500 flat fee. Because it's a flat fee you know what you will pay, rather than hourly where estimated fees may greatly exceed what you were told. The flat fee also includes the court filing fee, and our office costs, so $1,500 is the full total, covering all the way from preparing and filing the Adoption Request to appearing with you in court for the final hearing.
If the absent father is in the alleged category and can't be found, or is found but declines to consent, a termination of his rights can usually be done for a flat fee of only $1,450 (if he is not actively objecting, such as by filing a Complaint to Establish Paternity). If the father is presumed then the cost will be higher as there is no way to avoid a court hearing and more time is involved. Still, these cases can sometimes be done very economically.
How much is a consultation with Randy?
A basic consultation is free. If he determines your case is a complicated and contested one, then you will meet in his office for a lengthy meeting and you will need to pay for his time. However, most stepparent adoptions are quite basic for him and he can explain the process over the phone. After this discussion most clients decide they do not need to come to the office to hear the same information again, so Randy can just email you the retainer to get him started on your case.
How are Randy's fees so reasonable when he actually has more experience than most of his competitors who charge more?
Several years ago, after 29 years of "traditional" lawyering, Randy changed his business plan. He gave up his full-time office suite and full-time secretary and receptionist, both significant expenses. Instead he now has three offices (Riverside, San Diego and Irvine), but each is just an executive suite arrangement, meaning he pays for an office within a shared suite, and all his calls are answered by a shared receptionist.
Since 90% of Randy's clients elect phone or Skype consultations, he also saves countless hours every week in eliminated driving. His daily workplace is his home office, as the reality of an attorney's job is spending 95% or his or her time researching and creating legal documents on a computer, and talking to clients and other parties on the phone. In today's virtual world, there is no reason to spend two hours a day fighting traffic to go to a distant office to do what can just as easily be done in a home office. He additionally has also eliminated almost all advertising costs as he deemed them unnecessary, given most of his cases come to him by referral, or by clients' internet research. These decisions save him a great deal of what is a typical attorney's overhead and has let him provide very economical legal fees as those costs need not be passed on to you.
Also, because Randy only does adoptions, he can perform his legal duties much more quickly than other attorneys who practice in multiple fields and are less experienced in adoption. Lastly, Randy simply believes that people should not have to overpay to do a stepparent adoption and legally create their family.
Best wishes to you in completing your stepparent adoption.
spelled as step parent adoption, step-parent adoption and steparent adoption.
To return to the Home Page,
please use the menu bar at the top of this page.