What happens during a divorce when abuse is present? How do you safeguard yourself and those you love during those tough times? Divorce can be an incredibly difficult experience, and it gets even more complicated when abuse is involved. With the help of Susan and Tracy in this episode, you’ll learn how to safeguard yourself or your loved ones during these tough times. Knowing the signs of various forms of abuse could prove vital for protecting both yourself and those around you from further harm.
Stepparent adoption can be an expensive and tricky legal process to follow. How can you ensure that you know what you need to know before you even start? That’s where this edition of the Lady Lawyer League Podcast comes in. In this episode we cover what happens in the courtroom during a stepparent adoption, plus what and when abandonment can help you in your case.
On today’s podcast, we’re going to talk about adoption, and if you’re considering adoption as a stepparent, we’re going to answer some of the typical questions that you may have with our in-house expert, Tasha Heavican. Welcome, Tasha.
Tasha Heavican: Good morning.
Tracy Hightower-Henne: So we’re going to answer some of these questions why people consider a stepparent adoption and looking at what are the ramifications of when an adoption happens and also the challenges you can expect to face and how the process works.
Tasha: Yes, I love adoption cases. They are my favorite for a lot of reasons. You know, the most obvious one being that most of the time it’s a happy thing right at the end. Judges like adoptions when they get to enter a decree because they feel like they’re uniting a family. So it’s typically a very happy time. And so they’re definitely coveted cases in our office. And I’m really fortunate to be one of the ones that gets to do most of the adoptions in our office. And the other reason that these are super important and kind of close to my heart is because I was actually adopted by my stepdad when I was in the sixth grade. My brother and I both were. So I have been through the process and was old enough to remember the adoption hearing and that sort of thing. So being able to help families do what I went through as a young child is really, it’s just such a neat thing that I get to be a part of.
Tracy: Yeah, and it’s really providing permanency for a child who might be sort of in limbo.
Tasha: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s it’s it’s bringing families together and creating a positive environment for that child and really solidifying the family unit. And so I think it’s just such a really cool thing. And and I’m excited to kind of talk about it today and give a little insight onto the ins and outs of how it works.
Tracy: Awesome. Well, on this episode, specifically only looking at stepparent adoptions, we usually are looking at what’s called abandonment.
Tasha: Yes. So I would say there’s kind of two scenarios that I typically see with a stepparent adoption. So, and just to be kind of abundantly clear, stepparent adoption, meaning one of the parents is a biological parent of the child and then the other parent who would be adopting would be married to the biological parent.
Tracy: Or just a legal parent. It’s possible that a legal parent is as opposed to just a biological parent. Correct?
Tasha: Yes. Yep, you’re absolutely right. So kind of the two scenarios that I see one is going to be a situation where biological or legal parent comes in and says, I want my spouse to adopt my child because their other parent died, you know, and has been gone a long time or has passed away. And we want to create that family unit now. And then the other situation, as you had mentioned, is one where you have a parent. You know, you had two people who had a child and one of the parents has now abandoned. And that’s that’s a legal term in Nebraska. So abandonment is a period of six months where the abandoning parent has not had any contact with the child. So when we asked when we were talking about that and whether abandonment applies, we’re typically asking things like has the person sent birthday cards or birthday presents? Have they paid child support? Have they made phone calls, sent letters? You know, things like that, you know, really getting into the nitty gritty of what are the facts?
Tracy: And sometimes if there’s even a single birthday card that has been sent in the last five years or the last six months, but no other contact that potentially could overcome a finding of abandonment, right?
Tasha: I mean, it’s really a fact-specific, and the judge is going to want to know what those types of contacts are. The case law in Nebraska says that the six months is the operative period under the statute, right? But the case law also says that we don’t have to consider it in a vacuum, which means that we can look at other factors and things that have happened. And really, what the court is trying to figure out is, has there been a complete abdication of their obligation as a parent? So those are big words, I know, fancy, fancy schmancy words.
Tracy: There are more than five letters, though, so they don’t work on wordle.
Tasha: Oh, such a fun game.
Tracy: Ok. Yes, I know where it’ll work. Wordle is the new pandemic thing, right? Right. It has become difficult in some days for me, but I do it every day. Yes. Yeah.
Tasha: Yes. So if you haven’t done it, Google “wordle.”
Tracy: Which is also not a real word.
Tracy: But it’s also more than five letters.
Tasha: It is, so it wouldn’t work in the game.
Tracy: So don’t enter wordle into wordle. But wordle is a very fun game. You should check it out and then we can talk all about our past words on all. Yes, but abdication is the phrase you just use to describe, really, abandonment.
Tasha: Right? So basically, you know, another way to say it would be just that the parent has given up. They’re not coming back. They don’t care. They’re not interested in being a parent. Right. So if that’s the case, then that’s what we would want to present and prove for purposes of abandonment? Because, and the reason why we care about abandonment, is because if a parent has abandoned, then I don’t have to get their permission to have their child be adopted.
Tracy: You have someone else get their permission and that’s called a guardian ad litem. Yes. Tell us about a guardian ad litem.
Tasha: So what happens is if I’m saying to the judge, “Judge, I don’t need Parent A’s consent for this guardianship adoption.” Excuse me? Yeah, I’m saying, “Judge, I don’t need this parent’s consent for adoption because they have abandoned their child. “And when I assert that then the law says, OK, you need to have a guardian ad litem, which is typically another lawyer that’s appointed by the court to come in and investigate to see if they can find this parent that we are saying abandoned.
Tracy: This sounds like 60 Minutes.
Tasha: It is kind of.
Tracy: But not really so.
Tasha: And the guardian ad litem is going to try to, you know, look up this parent, maybe try to find them in the white pages or do a search on like court records.
Tracy: For the white pages still exist online. Oh, it’s an online thing.
Tasha: It’s whitepages.com.
Tracy: It’s not the physical book anymore.
Tasha: Although my neighbor still uses one and asks if every year if we want one delivered to our house.
Tracy: It’s still made?
Tasha: I know.
Tracy: I had no idea.
Tasha: So. The Guardian ad litem then typically issues a report that’s filed as part of the adoption case to either say, yes, this parent has abandoned or no, we don’t think so, and here’s why. And they’re really kind of an extension of the court to try to find this person because what I think is important to understand about adoption and kind of the reason why there are so many hoops to jump through is because if you are adopting a child, you are terminating parental rights of somebody else and under the constitution that we have in the United States and the state of Nebraska, you have a right to parent your child. So if you are taking that right away from somebody, they’re entitled to certain rights and notification and that sort of thing.
Tracy: It’s one of the most fundamental rights that there that we have correct. And sometimes the guardian ad litem will find the parent who we are alleging has abandoned the child and it becomes contested.
Tasha: Yes, that can happen.
Tracy: Tell us what happens in that situation.
Tasha: So if the parent wants to contest, then typically they would file an objection.
Tracy: With the adoption.
Tasha: Correct, and they would be, for example, if the theory is or the presentation of the evidence from me as the attorney trying to get the adoption is that this parent has abandoned, then the parent is going to try to bring information as to why it is not abandonment. For example, I call every week and they don’t answer or I’ve sent letters, or here’s my history of child support payments. You know, those types of things. So and then we would have a trial with the judge, and then the judge would have to decide whether or not abandonment has occurred.
Tracy: And we’ve had some of those trials we have when they’ve been contested and they’re pretty nerve wracking and having, you know, telling our clients the adoption may not get granted today at the end of the trial, but we go in and present the evidence that the other parent has abandoned the child and it’s ultimately always up to the judge in those situations.
Tracy: I think the other thing that is a typical question we get from clients is what is an adoption cost?
Tasha: Sure. So it it really can kind of run the gamut in terms of costs when you have a situation where the adoption is what we call uncontested, meaning nobody’s arguing, maybe a situation where the the other parent is deceased. Those are typically going to be less expensive. You know, usually maybe somewhere between three to five thousand is kind of a good starting place. When you go to the other end of the spectrum where you’re looking at a contested adoption, where you’re alleging abandonment, you have to pay for a guardian ad litem. You know you’re paying for trial preparation depositions, all of those types of things. It really can be, you know, very costly. I mean, I would say $15,000-$20,000 is not out of the question. It just really depends on the facts and kind of what what comes out of the woodwork as you’re going through the process.
Tracy: And that’s kind of the rule of thumb for most litigated or contested issues that we have in our office. And as lawyers in general, is anytime you’re involving the court, you’re having to go to court, you’re having any sort of hearing or trial. That’s where the costs increase. And that’s true with adoption as well.
Tasha: Absolutely. Yeah, there are, you know, in cases where you have the abandonment issue, the adopting parents are paying for the guardian ad litem to do their investigation. That’s part of what they have to pay for. In addition, even if you have a situation where the parent is willing to sign a consent and relinquishment, so what that means is me and my husband want to adopt a child, and we’re asking the parent to relinquish their rights to the child. As the adopting parents, we have to pay for the relinquishing parent, the person that we’re asking to give up their rights. We have to pay for them to have their own lawyer so that they can get their own advice about what their rights are and should they sign this and understanding what it means if they do sign it.
Tracy: And so that increases the cost as well.
Tasha: Absolutely. Additionally, with adoption, whenever you have specifically with a stepparent adoption in our example today, the parent who is adopting has to go through a series of background checks so they have to provide a credit check to the court. They also have to do a national FBI background check. They have to do a sex offender registry search, and they have to do a search on the Nebraska Department Health and Human Services, at least for Nebraska adoptions to show kind of what is their history and do they have a criminal record? They have those types of things. Those are all submitted to the judge.
Tracy: So the court’s not allowing just anyone to adopt. No, there is a background check. And all of these other checks to make sure that this person isn’t either going to abuse or neglect the child that they’re adopting and also has no huge financial constraints or concerns as well. Correct. And there’s no bright line rule to they need a high credit score or anything like that. Is that true?
Tasha: Correct? It doesn’t. You don’t have to be a gazillionaire to adopt. I think it’s more the court making sure that the person who’s adopting is a stable person, right? We don’t have 25 credit cases against this person, that type of thing, because, you know, part of this process and at the end, assuming that a decree of adoption is entered, the person who’s adopting is telling the court, I’m taking responsibility for this child as if this child was born to me. And so when we’re doing that, we want to show the court that we’re going to do a good job and we’re going to be able to do all of the things that we’re saying that we can do.
Tracy: I remember a case that we had. It’s been a little while and I think I helped work on it with you. And the potential adoptive parent had an assault on his record, but it was about 10 years ago and we had the conversation with him that this is going to show up on the background searches that we have to submit to the court, and we can’t guarantee that the adoption is going to get granted because you had this on your record and ultimately the adoption did go through. But it’s those types of things that are courts looking at. They’re considering the circumstances of what are these things on, you know, a criminal background check or what’s happening in a credit report.
Tasha: What’s interesting, too, is that, you know, the child, so a child over the age of 14 also has to consent to the adoption. And so when you have children who are older and can understand what’s going on and and understand what’s being said in court, I’ve had to have conversations with clients before who have things in their past, you know, asking them, “Have you had a conversation with your child about your background? Do they know about this?”
Tracy: Because they’re going to find out in court?
Tasha: Exactly. And it may not be. You may not want the first time that they hear about these things to be in front of the judge. Exactly. So having those family conversations about, yes, maybe I made this mistake like 15 years ago. I’ve learned from it. This is what happened, that type of thing. You know, those conversations are super important. What’s always interesting to me, too, is sometimes I’ve had cases with guardian ad litem where they will ask me, “Does the child know that they’re being adopted?” Because sometimes because the guardian ad litem has to interview the child, and if the first time they’re hearing about the adoption is when this random person shows up at their house,”
Tracy: Probably not the best idea. Right?
Tasha: So a huge part of adoption is communication, right? Everybody being on the same page and …
Tracy: Especially like in your situation when you were old enough, when you were adopted, if you had just met the guardian ad litem or got brought to court the first day, that would be probably shocking to a child.
Tasha: Right, right. And my adoption was actually in Iowa, but I remember going to judge’s chambers. So not in the courtroom. We were in the judge’s chambers and him asking me if I wanted to be adopted and that sort of thing. I’ve often thought it would be interesting to look at the court records. So something else that’s interesting about adoptions, they are sealed cases. So you can’t just go and look at adoption records at the courthouse like you can other types of cases. So you would have to get a court order in order for them to be unsealed
Tracy: And they’re rarely unsealed.
Tasha: Correct. You’ve got to have some pretty sufficient or, you know, important grounds to be opening adoption cases.
Tracy: So when a client first comes to us for a consultation for adoption, you’re really going over these things and questions and kind of preparing them for some of that communication with their child, with other family members. And then what are the things that we need to do with the other parent if it’s not a deceased parent, are we serving them? How are we providing notice, all of that?
Tasha: Sure. Typically, the first thing I do in regards to the other parent, the parent that would be giving up their rights or losing their rights. I ask our clients what their um, what they know about that parent in terms of location. Have you had a conversation with them about this or are they going to be blindsided by this? You know, really understanding that? And then I typically will write them a letter that provides a series of notices that are required by statute. They’re different depending on whether or not the people were married when this child was born, so there’s kind of a whole list of things you go through with that. But I send them a letter with a bunch of documents and kind of advise them of what their rights are in terms of if you want to sign this, if you want your own counsel, you’re allowed to have counseling up to three hours if you want, on the dime of the adopting parents. So I give them all of those notifications.
Tracy: And the purpose of counseling would be for potential relinquishment, correct?
Tasha: And so then any one of a number of things can happen. The person can reach out to me and say, “Yes, I knew about this. I want to sign,” you know, and we kind of coordinate that or they’ll hire an attorney and that attorney will contact me. Or sometimes they do nothing. And then we would have to proceed down the route of abandonment.
Tracy: And sometimes when we have a child who the other parent is not deceased and they were either married or not married, there may be a court order about child support. So what happens with the child support order if the stepparent adopts?
Tasha: Once the stepparent would adopt, assuming that the parent whose rights were terminated was the one that was paying support? I guess in either case, really, the child support would terminate because the child no longer has to be supported by that person because under the law, that person is not the parent. The birth certificate would be changed to indicate that the two parents who now are the adopting parents, were the ones that gave birth to the child.
Tracy: And I always think of a story that I remember of an adoptive parent who adopted through foster care, and the birth certificate, ultimately after the adoption, got changed and it now said the biological mother gave birth to this child in this very small town in New York. And this adopting parent was like, “It’s funny because I’ve never actually been to that town. But yet the birth certificate says I gave birth to this child,” so it literally changes the name of the birth parents to the adoptive parents on the birth certificate.
Tasha: Yes, and as part of the process, if you’re changing the child’s name, for example, if they are getting a different last name, which is what happened to me, then at the same time, the birth certificate would be changed so that the child’s name at birth is the new name under the adoption decree.
Tracy: And ultimately, that is the goal of the adoption is to, I mean, that’s the final piece is the birth certificate gets changed not only for who the birth parents are, but also potential name change. Correct. So when we really talk about adoption, there are some challenges that people can face. And I think some of these that we talked about are really important to discuss this with an attorney. And some people, I think, often call us and say, I’m ready to do this adoption and we go through some of these things and they’re never going to fit the mold for a successful adoption. And so is there any other avenue that those folks can take if adoption may not be a choice for them?
Tasha: I have counseled people to look at doing potentially estate planning documents so that they can name a guardian for their child. So as an example, if you have a biological parent who is married to a stepparent and the biological parent dies, then the stepparent would potentially step into that role as parent. And if you put nomination of guardian in your will, that allows you to give that person priority of appointment for guardianship. It does not terminate the parental rights of the non-custodial parent. The parent is not around. But I’ve had cases where one comes to mind where a gal had a child with a person who was kind of a scary person. You know, he he was violent and …
Tracy: I just pictured the clown from It when you said that. Apparently that’s scary to me. Right?
Tasha: So the clown from It is the father, but not around, right? But in a situation where in this particular case, mom would pass away, he would be the next logical person to take care of the child. Notwithstanding his tendencies. And so by putting something in a will, we can at least initially give the stepparent priority of appointment. And then we can look at whether or not we need to terminate parental rights at that time if that’s an avenue we want to go down.
Tracy: I think some of the other situations that we’ve seen too is abandonment is a pretty high bar to meet. And just because someone is a bad parent doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their child. And oftentimes when there’s a court order for child support in place, sometimes it’s a minimal amount of child support that they’re ordered to pay. And it just is automatically coming out of their paycheck. They’re not doing anything actively to make sure they’re paying child support. And that sometimes can be, you know, against an abandonment finding and can trump an abandonment finding. But they’re doing nothing else to take care of the child, no contact, no birthday cards, etc. So I think those are the really difficult situations that we have to tell a client you’re not going to win abandonment because this one thing, whether it’s child support being paid or the consistent birthday card that gets sent, but nothing else. And so I think that’s really important to have those other options. And that’s a really good idea is to have those estate planning documents in place.
Tasha: Absolutely, absolutely.
Tracy: So, I think on this podcast, it’s been really just the primer of adoption proceedings and what happens with stepparent adoption. So because every case can be very unique, it’s really important to talk with an experienced attorney about adoption. Ask those questions that are personal to you and unique to your situation so that we can help put together a plan for adoption and whether it’s appropriate for you and what other avenues you may have.
Tasha: Absolutely. We love to talk about adoption here. So if you’re thinking about doing a stepparent adoption, you have questions about stepparent adoption, you can definitely contact our office through our website at hrlawomaha.com and get set up for a consultation. I’d love to talk about your kids and your family and see how we can get to that end goal of the adoption decree.
Tracy: Yeah, Tasha will covet all of the adoption cases, so I will. Thanks for joining us. Thank you for listening to the Lady Lawyer League.
Outro: Be sure to like and subscribe anywhere you get your podcasts. If you would like to learn more about our firm, Hightower Reff Law, please visit our website at hrlawomaha.com. We’ll see you next week!
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What happens after a divorce? What are the different judgments and how do they impact you? In this episode Susan and Tracy cover all of those post decree tasks you need to know when your divorce is final. Once the divorce is final, there are a few things you need to think about. You’ll want to make sure that all the necessary judgments have been issued and that you understand them. Property division, alimony (if applicable), child support/custody—these are all important pieces for your post-divorce life.