Adoption After Remarriage
Zach was excited about the marriage. The day Kevin and I got engaged, Zach's first words were "Now when someone asks me about my dad, I'll have something to say!" We included him in the wedding preparations, and he had the honor of walking me down the aisle.
The months following the wedding were full of adjustments. Kevin took a new job, while I quit mine, ecstatic that I could finally be a stay-at-home-mom. We bought a house that put us in a different school district, which meant Zach would attend a new school that fall. He was also facing the adjustment of having two parents in his life now, and although he and Kevin got along well most of the time, their relationship endured some rough spots as they both settled into their roles of son and dad.
We thought that we were done making any major life changes for the time being. Unfortunately, while tending to the routine matter of having new wills drawn up to reflect our status as a married couple, we were propelled into a situation that resulted in months of emotional turmoil for all three of us.
While drawing up my own will, I included a request that Kevin be given custody of Zach in the event of my death. Our lawyer explained that regardless of whom I stipulated as Zach's guardian in my will, the ultimate decision in that matter would be left to the courts. Realistically, his natural father could contest guardianship and, although he had never been a part of Zach's life, his role as biological parent would carry a great deal of weight.
Our lawyer explained that the only way that Zach's permanent place with Kevin could be assured was to pursue the termination of my ex-husband's parental rights. This would allow Kevin to legally adopt Zach, ensuring that he could not be removed from Kevin's custody. Despite this promise of adoption, I dreaded the thought that I would need to see my ex-husband again.
Heartsick, I sat in the lawyer's office and cried. I wanted what was best for Zach, yet panic engulfed me at the thought of making any contact with this man.
Ours had been a short-lived marriage, full of emotional manipulation and abuse. Five months after we wed, I became pregnant and finally realized that I had to escape from this unhealthy environment. I knew that there was no way I would bring a baby into the world and have him grow up in that kind of dysfunctional family.
In the years following our divorce, there were no birthday cards or Christmas gifts from Zach's absent father. The only contact my ex-husband made was through intermittent drunken phone calls to me in the middle of the night. On rare occasions, he expressed an interest in seeing Zach but never followed through. I was thankful that Zach remained blissfully unaware of his father's sporadic contact, and thus never suffered from the disappointment of broken promises.
Now, with no word from my ex in almost two years, I was hesitant to risk initiating it myself. What if he wouldn't agree to the termination? What if this failed and precipitated a demand for visitation with his estranged son? I was terrified by that thought. There was nothing I wanted to avoid more than subjecting Zach to this potentially traumatic situation. He was happy with our new family life, and I wanted desperately for it to stay that way.
Our lawyer assured us that we had a very strong case. The minimal requirement for requesting termination was six months with no contact, and we had nearly five times that working in our favor. After thinking and praying about what to do, Kevin and I cautiously agreed that pursuing the termination was our best option. In January 1994 the proper papers were filed and a March court date was set.
I should have expected the morass of legal red tape after having previously endured two and a half years of custody and divorce proceedings. Still, the process proved frustrating. Since we didn't know exactly where my ex-husband was, the simple act of having him served with the necessary legal documents proved to be time-consuming. Once they were delivered, the waiting began. Would he agree to the termination or would he contest? I prayed he would just agree to relinquish his paternal rights, and we could then get on with the rest of our lives.
Of course, he contested. Through his court-appointed lawyer, he proceeded to do his best to hold up the entire process through technicalities. As if these setbacks weren't enough, the courts threw us another curve ball. Not only did both my ex and I need legal representation, but independent counsel was required for Zach as well, to ensure that his best interests were being considered.
This development induced a new wave of panic in me. Until now, we had kept our explanations to Zach very simple. He knew that Kevin wanted to legally adopt him and be his "real" dad and that when it was over, he would have a new last name. Now we had to explain why he would need to talk to a lawyer and that his biological father was not agreeing to what we wanted. This was confusing for Zach, since he didn't even know his natural dad, and I knew from the comments he made in the following weeks that the uncertainty of this situation was bothering him. Kevin and I were both upset that he had to endure these anxieties. While we did all we could to make him feel safe and secure, we continued to pray that this would all end soon.
As the hearing date drew near, we worked with our lawyer to prepare for the questioning that I would undoubtedly face. I was most concerned about what my ex-husband's lawyer would ask, because I feared that my ex would lie to his lawyer about past events and I would come out looking like the villain. I felt tied up in knots. All I wanted was a secure future for Zach; why did it have to be so difficult?
Finally, March 18 arrived. Kevin and I, accompanied by my mother, our pastor, and our lawyer, entered the courtroom. Thankfully, Zach was not required to be present. Sitting across the room from my ex-husband, his new fiancée, and his dad, I fought the anxiety that was welling up inside me. It had been more than five years since I last saw my ex, and I was angry that, even after all these years, he still held the power to manipulate me.
For the next five hours, I testified about the events of the past seven years, having to relive some of the most painful moments of my life. Emotionally drained, I answered my final question in the midafternoon, and Kevin then gave his testimony. When he was asked about his intentions to adopt Zach, he expressed his desire to be able to provide for him and let him live a normal life in a completed family. I already knew he felt this way, but I was still choked up as he shared these feelings in the presence of my ex-husband who, in seven years, had never given Zach's well-being a second thought.
My ex-husband didn't take the stand until the last hour of the court session. Sitting less than six feet in front of me, he responded to the lawyers' questions. For the first time that day, I felt a ray of hope emerge within me. He wasn't answering anything decisively, and it became clear to me that he didn't have a leg to stand on in this case. While my heart urged me to remain confident, my head insisted that I not yet allow myself to get excited.
Due to the late hour, the judge recessed the hearing until the following Tuesday, so it wasn't until after a long, restless weekend that we returned to the courthouse. Upon our arrival, we were instructed to wait outside the courtroom while the lawyers met in the judge's chambers. My ex-husband and his contingent were present at the other side of the rotunda, and I couldn't help but wonder, "What is he up to?" Renewed feelings of uneasiness welled within me.
Soon the lawyers returned, and our attorney approached. Huddling us together, he said quietly, "He has decided to voluntarily relinquish his parental rights."
I cannot adequately describe the feelings I had at that moment! I wanted to cry and jump and yell, but I managed to contain myself. Instead I wept silently and offered up prayers of thanks.
We still went before the judge so that the hearing's venue could be changed. After obtaining assurance from my ex-husband that he understood the permanence of this decision, the judge made his ruling to terminate the parental rights. I admit to feeling vindicated when the judge made a point of telling us that even had my ex chosen not to voluntarily relinquish his rights, he had already heard enough in the first day's testimony to have terminated them himself.
After a mandatory ten-day waiting period, the termination was final and the adoption petition was filed. On May 24, we were back in the same courtroom, and it was a euphoric occasion when the judge proclaimed Kevin to be Zach's real father.
An unexpected benefit came to me through this process. Finally, after seven years, I was able to quit going through life looking over my shoulder. I hadn't been aware of how much time I spent trying to ensure that my ex-husband could not harm my son or me. With that burden now removed, I felt like I was at last completely freed from that ill-fated relationship. I could now fully enjoy a new life with my loving husband who cared so deeply for my son--our son--and who went to such great lengths to prove it.
It has been five years since this took place. I'm thankful to have those trying times behind me, but I would not hesitate to do it all again if it meant assuring the safety of my child. I suspect there are many parents who are in situations similar to the one I was in. It troubles me to think that they might be living under the same false assumptions that I was with regard to their children's guardianship. The laws governing child custody differ from state to state, even from county to county, thus making it imperative for these parents to seek legal counsel in this matter. It may be frightening and unpleasant, as well as costly, but it is well worth it for the peace of mind in can ultimately bring.
Lisa Beamer is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in the online magazine ePregnancy as well as in Suite101.com's Christian Families area. Lisa and her husband Kevin reside in southwestern Pennsylvania with their three children--Zachary, Christopher, and Emma.
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