Families today come in all shapes and sizes, with connections that are either biological or by choice. However, under New Jersey law, a child can only have two legal parents, even though in reality the child may have a stepfather, stepmother, or other “de facto” parental figure involved in their lives. And while another person who is acting in a parental role may have some custody or visitation rights conferred by a court, by law a child may only have two legal parents.
A person who is not the biological parent of a child can only gain parental rights if one of the child’s legal parents dies or has had their parental rights terminated. However, if one of the legal parents has abandoned the child and is difficult to find, has not had their parental rights terminated or voluntarily surrendered those rights, the process can get much more complicated.
For a legal parent to voluntarily terminate his or her parental rights to open the way for a stepparent adoption, that person must sign a form legally relinquishing his or her parental rights. A legal parent’s rights may also be involuntarily terminated for a number of reasons, including:
- Conviction for abuse, neglect, abandonment, or cruelty to a child.
- Failure to comply with Division of Child Protection and Permanency recommendations.
- When a court determines that termination is in the best interest of the child.
Once a legal parent’s rights have been voluntarily or involuntarily terminated, a stepparent may file for adoption, a fairly simple process that includes a criminal and child abuse background check and a trip to court for an adoption hearing. If the child is over the age of 10, he or she may attend the hearing.
After the adoption hearing, if the stepparent is named the legal parent of the child, they are granted with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, including inheritance rights and the ability to retain custody of the child if something happens to the other legal parent.
When you are faced with an important life decision regarding a key family relationship, the advice and assistance of an experienced family law attorney often proves crucial to your understanding of the issues involved and your satisfaction with the ultimate outcome of your family law matter. Contact us today for your free consultation.