How to Adopt a Stepchild - Laws and Procedures in Los Angeles County
Hello, I'm Randall Hicks, and I'm a step parent adoption attorney. Welcome to my "Advanced Q & A" How to Adopt a Stepchild page about California laws, and specifically about procedures in Los Angeles County. If you have found this page through internet research and skipped the starting page on this website about stepparent adoption in Los Angeles, please click here to start there, as it is a much shorter page than this detailed one, but answers all the initial questions most prospective stepparents have. If you don't live in Los Angeles County and desire information about another SoCal County in which I also do step parent adoptions, I've created pages focusing on those counties for you: San Diego, Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino.
Please be aware that I cover all the needed issues in my 30-40 minute free consultation with new prospective clients, so reading the following Q & A is not necessary if you will be scheduling a consultation.
In which county do we file our adoption petition?
Generally, you can only file a Stepparent Adoption Request (the Petition for Adoption) in the county in which you live, so if you live in Los Angeles County, you will file in the Los Angeles County Superior Court. There are 12 district courts in L.A. County, but these are not used for adoptions. All stepparent adoptions are filed in the Edmund Edelmen Children's Court (the county's central court for children's cases, located in Monterey Park).
What is the court filing fee?
The Los Angeles County Superior Court filing fee when you adopt a stepchild is $160. In other counties it is $20.
Do we have to live in L.A. county for a particular time before we can file our Adoption Request?
No. It is only required that you are actual residents of Los Angeles County to adopt your stepchild here. The only time length of residence is an issue is under what is called the UCCJEA (Uniform Child Custody Jurisdictional Enforcement Act) which becomes an issue when you have a prior case regarding the child's custody/visitation in another state (likely where you used to live), and you have now moved to Los Angeles. This typically only becomes an issue if the adoption is contested by the absent parent.
Do we have to be married a certain time?
California law does not require a minimum time period to be married before you start a step-parent adoption, so the answer is "no." Some case investigators encourage you to be married at least a year to be sure a step-parent adoption is right for you, but that would only be their personal recommendation.
Why is there an investigation (often called a home study) before the step parent adoption is granted? What do they require from us?
The court wants to make sure the child's best interests are served by the stepparent adoption being granted and creating a new parent-child relationship. It is almost unheard of for a stepparent adoption to be denied. There will be a criminal history check of the adopting parent via fingerprinting.
There are some documents you will be asked for during the short investigation: certified copy of the child's birth certificate; certified copy of your marriage license; certified copy of the adopting parent's birth certificate; and if either spouse has a prior marriage, then a copy of the dissolution order. (This order must only be a count-conformed copy, not a certified copy, when working with the agency I recommend, but some other investigating entities might require a certified copy.)
Is there an investigation of the spouse of the adopting parent (the biological parent of the child who is retaining their parental rights)?
No. The existing parent is not required to go through the fingerprinting process, et cetera.
Is there a fee by the county for the investigation?
Yes. The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services charges a fee of $700. However, there is a new law effective January 1, 2017 that allows you to not use LADCFS (nice people, but overworked and therefor slow) and instead select a private adoption agency or licensed social worker to do the investigation (which is much more streamlined and faster). This law was written by the Academy of California Adoption Lawyers, of which I am a member.
What if the adopting dad or mom 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. In 31 years of doing step-parent adoptions I have never seen one be denied (perhaps because people with a questionable past exclude themselves and simply don't start the process).
What about if the adopting step parent had a bankruptcy?
Bankruptcy is not a bar to adopting your stepchild. The investigator 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. The overall concern is the child's best interests and security.
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 (notarization is the most common method). I prepare this form, contact the absent parent about it, send it to him/her with a check for a notary public (a standard notary is part of my flat fee and not an extra charge for you), file it with the court, then give a copy to the assigned stepparent adoption investigator.
What if the absent parent can't be found, or declines to sign a consent?
In about 98% of stepparent adoptions, the absent parent is the birth father, and although I find that the majority of birth fathers willingly sign a consent, it is not unusual when one can't be found, or is not cooperative in signing a consent. (Oftentimes these men don't wish to actually object, they are just not willing to take the time to cooperate.) Unfindable or uncooperative birth fathers are something I deal with often, and oftentimes the problem can be resolved without excessive cost.
Let's assume the absent parent is the birth father. 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, has never had the child in his home, or does not have a paternity judgment, he is considered an alleged father. Technically, his written consent is not required, but the court will require proof that proper notice of the step parent adoption 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 me as an adoption attorney, and the legal fee will usually be just $1,850 (several hundred more if you don't know his whereabouts to give him notice, requiring Randy to go through a "due diligence" search process and file proof to the court he can't be found. These costs would be in addition to the $2,500 flat fee.
However, if the birth father goes to court to fight, the legal fees would be significantly higher as a trial would be required. The court would examine his past behavior regarding if he acted promptly and responsibly in meeting the needs of the child and mother. If he did act responsibly then the court can only terminate his rights if he is found to be unfit. However, if the birth father did not act promptly and responsibly, then the court can rule against him simply by applying a "best interests of the child" standard.
To repeat, however, this hearing is only required if the alleged father is actively objecting. If he can't be found, or is found but declines to consent, there is a legal process to terminate his rights that does not require your court appearance (and as stated above, is usually only $1,850).
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, ever had the child in his home, or has a paternity determination by a court. 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, for at least one year, showing an intent to "abandon". A Freedom from Custody action is more complicated, therefore more expensive in legal fees, than when dealing with an alleged father.
When the absent parent is the mother, then her rights are basically the same as a presumed father, and usually a Petition for Freedom from Parental Custody and Control based upon abandonment is required if she will not consent. Termination of parental rights is a complicated subject so the above information is a basic summary and does not cover every possible scenario. If needed, this is an area I discuss in greater detail during my initial consultation with you. Through the default hearing the cost is usually $3,800 if the birth father is findable, more if he can't be located and notice by publication is required.
What legal documents are required by the court to adopt a stepchild?
The process starts by me preparing and filing the Adoption Request, with the required two ICWA attachments (see below), then serving those documents on the investigator. I then try to contact the absent parent to sign his/her Consent to Adoption, then file the consent with the court (or if not obtainable, then an action to terminate parental rights). When the file is complete I file a Memorandum to Set to request a finalization hearing date (although presently during Covid all adoption final hearings are waived when the proper documents are submitted and the court can grant the adoption without the family being present). I also prepare and file with the court the Adoption Agreement (signed at the final hearing by the adopting parent, his/her spouse, the child if aged 12 or older, and the judge), as well as the Adoption Order (signed by the judge), and the form which will generate a new amended birth certificate for the child. Also required under the new procedures to waive a hearing is a special notarized agreement and stipulation to waive your presence at an in-person hearing.
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 to be 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. Still an inquiry must be made if you know of any Indian heritage.) In the rare instances when it does apply, however, it is a significant legal issue and can make a stepparent adoption much more difficult and expensive 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 obligation for future child support ends when the adoption is granted. This is one reason why the majority of absent birth fathers agree to sign a Consent to Adoption. If the absent parent is past due on child support, the granting of the step parent adoption does not normally forgive that past-due debt, however, unless a rare special agreement is made and approved.
Do we have to appear in court when the adoption is granted?
Normally, yes. But with the coronavirus many courts have adopted special new rules. In Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and San Diego Counties, you don't ever need to go to court to finalize your adoption. In Riverside, San Diego and Orange Counties you finalize by video hearing, so you appear from your living room! And Randy from his office. This just requires some special procedures and documents for Randy to accomplish. Los Angeles is even more advanced and with proper special documentation, at present even a video hearing can be waived, and the adoption finalized within only about three months from starting, which is faster than pre-Covid.
Whenever things get back to post-Covid "normal," however, whenever that will be, the usual procedure in all counties is for the adopting parent, their spouse (the child's biological parent) and the child to appear at the finalization hearing (unless military duty makes it impossible, then there can be an exception, or the adoptive parents have moved away during the step-parent adoption). The absent parent whose rights have been severed by this point in time does not appear, of course, and is not even given notice of the hearing. 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 even permitted in court to commemorate the day. It is so casual that many judges invite the family to come up where he sits on his or her bench for a formal photo.
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, although the investigator includes the child in part of her discussion with you about your planned stepparent adoption. (If you are concerned about your child hearing about a particular issue, you can discuss that with the investigator in advance to see if she can modify her comments/questions. I find the private agency social workers to be very sensitive to such matters and anxious to help make your step parent adoption a smooth and happy process.)
If the child is age 12 or older, the child must sign a consent to the adoption in the finalization court hearing. (Usually the ceremony of this signing is quite touching and means a great deal to a child.)
Do we get a new birth certificate for the child changing their name? Does this cost extra?
Yes, when you adopt a stepchild you get a new amended birth certificate. And no, there is no extra fee. The amended birth certificate will also list the adopting parent as the birth parent, replacing the absent parent, and you can change the child's name (usually if the adoptive parent is the father the child's last name is changed to match his, but this is for each family to decide).
How does a step-parent adoption affect the rights of the existing 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 is 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 if the parent were to die without a will making specific provisions to the contrary.
Does the Federal Adoption Tax Credit apply to stepparent adoptions?
No. Unfortunately, the Federal Adoption Tax Credit does not apply when you adopt a stepchild. The credit was created to encourage adoption for a child who does not have any parent, and this situation does not apply in step parent adoption.
How long does it take to complete a stepparent adoption?
I believe no attorney in California completes stepparent adoptions faster than I do. I have your Adoption Request prepared and ready for you to sign within 3-4 days of receiving your signed retainer. I email all documents for you to sign and return to save time (unless you prefer them by snail mail). Thanks to the new law allowing us to use private adoption agencies (which few attorney seem to know about) most of my stepparent adoptions are finalized within about 3 months of filing the Adoption Request. Compare this to most attorneys working with LADCFS, where the average is 12-18 months.
If the absent parent is not available to sign a consent, then extra time will be needed for that court action, but luckily, the majority of stepparent adoptions I handle have consenting parents.
Do we have to use an attorney to do a stepparent adoption?
Technically, no. You can file on your own, called "in pro per." Some people have successfully completed their step-parent 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 and completed them correctly, 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, many 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 uniquely different from general family law cases, which is primarily divorce and child custody. Completely different Family Code statutes cover step parent adoptions than divorce-related matters. There is an excellent and highly respected organization of adoption attorneys, the Academy of California Adoption Lawyers. Membership requires the completion of 200 adoptions and many other requirements. Only 40 attorneys are admitted in the entire state. I am a member and you can find other members here in the event you feel I am not the right attorney for you: acal.org.
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 his or her personality and knowledge. Some attorneys are sadly known for never returning their client phone calls, or at least not doing so 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.
What are Randy's qualifications as a step-parent adoption lawyer?
I've limited my law practice to adoption for 34 years. Over recent years I've focused almost exclusively on step-parent adoptions (of both minors and adult step-children - a slightly different process called adult adoption), so much so that I created the Stepparent Adoption Center, to show the public that is my focus. I am a member of the Academy of California Adoption Lawyers. I have an A+ rating by the Better Business Bureau. I have a 5 star rating from Avvo, the attorney rating service, as well as on Yelp and Google. I have written several books on adoption and parenting, most recently STEP PARENTING: 50 One-Minute DOs & DON'Ts for Stepdads & Stepmoms which is one of Amazon's most popular books in the "step parenting books" category. In my younger years, when I liked doing TV, I was a guest, or one of my books was featured, on The Today Show, CBS This Morning, Sally Jesse Raphael, Mike & Maty, John and Leeza from Hollywood, and I hosted the 1991 PBS educational series, Adoption Forum. If you love to read, my daughter and I co-authored a new novel, The Girl Without a Face. I hope you will check it out if you love a good story. My main credential, however, is that I love what I do for a living. For more information about me please visit the About Randy page.
What are Randy's fees to do a stepparent adoption?
I charge a flat fee of just $2,500 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 $2,500 flat fee. Because it's a flat fee you know what you will pay, rather than being charged hourly where estimated fees may greatly exceed what you were told. The flat fee also includes the court filing fee, and my office costs, so $2,500 is the full total, covering everything 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 father 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 $1,850 (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 (usually $3,800) 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 and usually takes about 30-40 minutes. I ask that both husband and wife be present, whether we are doing it by phone or in person. If I determines your case is a complicated and contested one, then we will need to meet in person, schedule more time, and I will need to charge you for the consultation. Most stepparent adoptions, however, can be done with a free 30 minute consultation, which completely covers all needed issues.
How are Randy's fees so reasonable when he actually has more experience than most of his competitors who charge more?
I've been an adoption attorney for 34 years. A few years ago I changed my business plan. I gave up my large office suite and full-time secretary and receptionist, all significant expenses, and went "small." Now I have multiple offices, but each is just an executive suite arrangement, meaning I pay for an office within a shared suite, and all my calls are answered by a shared receptionist.
Since 95% of my clients elect phone consultations, I also save countless hours every week in eliminated driving. My daily workplace is my home office, as the reality of an attorney's job is spending 90% of their 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.
These decisions save me a great deal of what is a typical attorney's overhead and time, and let me provide very economical legal fees, as those typical costs need not be passed on to you.
Also, because I only do adoptions, I can perform my legal duties much more quickly than other attorneys who practice in multiple fields and are less experienced in adoption. Lastly, I simply believe that people should not have to overpay to do a stepparent adoption and legally create their family.
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In conclusion . . . I hope the detailed information above has been helpful. If you know someone interested in stepparent adoption who would benefit from the information, you are welcome to use the buttons below to share this page.
But be aware, this website is not legal advice. Also be aware that not every law potentially applicable to your step-parent adoption is mentioned here, and that laws can change or be interpreted differently, so your use of this website acknowledges and agrees to the fact you use this website and webpage with no liability by Randall Hicks / Stepparent Adoption Center. You will need to retain an attorney and discuss the particular facts of your case to get reliable information regarding how to proceed with your stepparent adoption.