Stepparents generally have few or no legal rights or responsibilities when it comes to their stepchildren. In some cases where a stepparent is the only mother or father the child has known, however, or where the family wishes to make the bond of family “official,” adoption of the child by the stepparent may be possible. Here are five things to know about stepparent adoption in North Carolina:
1. A stepparent who adopts agrees to become the legal parent of the spouse’s child, and to assume all the rights and responsibilities that the child’s biological parent would have. Adoption is for life, even if the adoptive parent and biological parent divorce.
2. Consent must be given by: (1) the parent who is the stepparent’s spouse; (2) the parent who is not the stepparent’s spouse (if necessary); (3) a guardian of the minor child; and (4) the minor child if 12 or older.
3. In order to file the petition for stepparent adoption, the child needs to have lived primarily with the stepparent for at least 6 months immediately before filing.
4. The stepparent who adopts must be legally married to the parent who has legal and physical custody of the child.
5. The parties in a stepparent adoption may agree to release past due child support payments and attach the agreement to the adoption petition. Otherwise, even a parent who has consented to adoption by a stepparent, continues to owe any past-due child support.
Lots of parents and stepparents in North Carolina wonder whether the stepparent’s income affects the amount of child support that is owed. For example, if dad remarries a woman who has quite high income or assets, will it mean that he is obligated to pay more in child support? If he cannot or does not pay for some reason, can his new wife be required to pay child support on his behalf?
In North Carolina, stepparents have absolutely no duty of support to stepchildren. The obligation of a stepparent depends on whether the stepparent voluntarily act in loco parentis, which means in the place of a parent. Someone who is acting in loco parentis “has assumed the status and obligations of a parent without a formal adoption.” This is reviewed on a case by case basis, and the question is whether the stepparent intended to assume such obligations toward the stepchild(ren) as support and maintenance.
Even if a stepparent has assumed the obligation of paying support, that obligation usually ends if the stepparent and parent get divorced. A stepparent may sign a notarized agreement to pay child support, and that agreement would be enforceable even after divorcing the child’s parent. Even then, however, the stepparent’s obligation to support the child would still be secondary to the child’s legal parents. Courts can only order the stepparent to support the child if the natural parents are unable to provide any support or the needs of the child are greater than the abilities of the natural parents to provide.
Contributions of a third party (stepparent) may be used to support a deviation from the NC Child Support Guidelines. This generally requires that the parent who receives the child support on behalf of the child has a higher burden to prove the actual expenses of the child and how much contribution is made by the stepparent. This is quite unusual, but possible. The bottom line, however, is that as a rule, a stepparent has no obligation to pay support for his or her stepchildren.