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Simpler stepparent adoptions on the horizon

On Oct. 1, the Michigan Senate approved a measure that will make it less complicated for stepparents to legally adopt their spouse’s children.

Senate Bill 458, sponsored by Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker, R-Lawton, would let a custodial parent’s new spouse petition the court to adopt the child. If the noncustodial parent has not paid support for the child or has not visited or had contact with the child for at least two years, the court may terminate the rights of the noncustodial parent.

The legislation also provides that, when deciding whether a noncustodial parent is meeting his or her court-ordered obligations, a $0.00 support order can be treated as if no support order had been entered at all.

SB 458 is in direct response to the Michigan Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in In re AJR. In that case, the Supreme Court unanimously held that a father with joint legal custody could not have his parental rights involuntarily terminated so the stepparent’s adoption of the child could proceed. Although the biological father had not contacted the child or paid support in several years, the Supreme Court said the biological mother had to return to court and obtain sole legal custody before her new spouse could file an adoption petition.

Family-law attorneys across Michigan criticized the In re AJR decision, saying it basically ended stepparent adoptions and denied children a healthy, loving familial relationship. Lawyers pointed out that joint legal custody is the standard in Michigan, and it’s difficult to get judges to grant sole legal custody to one parent. According to practitioners, under the In re AJR ruling, stepparents who want to adopt their stepchildren would either have to get consent from the noncustodial parent to do so (a rare occurrence) or relitigate the divorce case in terms of custody.

SB 458 will streamline the stepparent adoption process and make it less burdensome, Schuitmaker noted. Requiring two separate court proceedings — one to get sole legal custody and another to let the stepparent adopt the child — is too complicated, time-consuming and expensive, she said.

SB 458 has now moved to the House of Representatives and is awaiting consideration by the House Judiciary Committee.

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