Adoption involves the complete transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from one person to another. A transfer may occur from a birth parent to a relative, a stepparent, or even an unrelated person. Both minors and adults may be adopted. Each state has its own adoption laws, which govern the adoption process in their particular jurisdiction.

Raising a child can be deeply fulfilling, but it also can be a heavy responsibility. People considering adoption should know that the process is often long and complicated. There are several ways to adopt a child, including independent adoptions, agency adoptions, and identified adoptions. Additionally, an adoption may either be open or closed. Open adoptions represent the modern trend in adoptions and involve continuing contact between adopted children and their birth parents, even after the adoptions are finalized. The individual situation will determine the level of interaction, which may include the exchange of names and contact information, letters, or ongoing visitations. In contrast, closed adoptions represent a more traditional form of adoption in which adopted children cease contact with their birth parents and the adoption records are sealed. In such an instance, the adopted child, usually an infant, will be placed with an adoptive family and neither the adoptive parents nor the adopted child will know the identities of the birth parents.

Independent adoptions are based on an agreement between the biological parents and the prospective adoptive parents. A third party like a lawyer or a religious figure may be used as an intermediary, but the core arrangement remains between the two sets of parents. In some cases, the agreement provides for the biological parents to retain contact with the adoptive parents after the adoption (an open adoption). Although independent adoptions are legal in almost all states, there may be specific rules that you need to follow if you choose to pursue this route.

Some prospective parents prefer to use an agency in adopting a child. Biological parents may bring children to a private agency, such as a non-profit organization, for adoption if they cannot take care of the child. There are also public agencies that seek to find new homes for children who have become wards of the state. These children may have lost their biological parents or suffered from abuse. It is generally cheaper and less time-consuming to use a public agency than a private agency, but the counseling services at a private agency tend to be stronger.

Identified adoptions combines aspects of independent and agency adoptions. Initially, identified adoptions resemble independent adoptions with the biological parents and the adoptive parents deciding to arrange an adoption. Instead of formulating an agreement themselves, however, they use an agency to handle the rest of the necessary paperwork. This method of adoption is allowed in the handful of states that do not permit independent adoptions.

Requirements for Adoption

In theory, any adult who is fit to be a parent is legally eligible to adopt a child, assuming the adult meets any state residency requirements. This includes unmarried couples and single adults. In practice, however, state courts and agencies will consider the best interests of the child in deciding whether to grant an adoption. Biases against certain types of couples unfortunately can result.

Almost all states permit same-sex couples to adopt children, but these couples may find more obstacles in their path to adoption. They may want to consult an attorney to help overcome implicit prejudices when a judge or agency considers their fitness for adoption. The same may be true for prospective parents whose race or ethnicity is different from the child whom they plan to adopt. Single people seeking to adopt might sometimes be given lower priority than couples when they are pursuing adoption through an agency. Like unmarried couples, single individuals wishing to adopt may be given fewer options and subject to longer investigations into their fitness for parenting.

If you pursue an independent adoption, and perhaps even if you use an agency, you may want to consider enlisting a lawyer to help you navigate the technicalities of the process. Prospective parents interested in an independent adoption must make sure that they have received valid consent from the biological parents. This usually cannot happen until after the child is born, and consent sometimes can be revoked within the first few months of the child’s life with the adoptive parents.

Just as critical is the home study, which is required for all adoptive parents. A social worker or someone working for a state agency will evaluate the daily life of the couple and recommend to the court for or against their fitness as parents. Whoever conducts the investigation will also determine whether the prospective parents possess the financial resources and emotional commitment needed to raise the child, whether the couple have a stable relationship, and if their health is sufficient to assume this responsibility. They will want to make sure that the couple’s relationship is stable and that they are in sufficient health to assume this responsibility. If the couple already has other children, the investigation will look into whether these children are likely to accept an adopted brother or sister in their lives.

The prospective parents also will need to file an adoption petition with the court. This gives notice to people who must consent to the adoption. If the child is 12 years old or older, he or she may be required to give consent. A hearing on the adoption will be held so that a judge can decide whether the child’s best interests are served. If the judge approves the adoption and issues a final order on it, the child can start his or her life with the adoptive parents.

Adopting a Stepchild

Sometimes an adult will want to adopt a child from a spouse’s previous relationship. Stepchild adoptions may be more straightforward than a conventional adoption because a home study and adoption hearing may not be required. Same-sex couples may follow this path to adopt the children of a partner or spouse from a previous relationship. However, obtaining the consent of the other biological parent may be challenging, since many parents will not agree to surrender all of their legal rights to their child. In a stepparent adoption, consent of the other parent is required unless his or her rights have already been terminated.

In special circumstances, a court may allow an adoption even without the consent of a parent. Generally, a court may grant a nonconsensual adoption if the child's parent has not had custody of the child for at least a year, has not maintained meaningful contact with the child, or has not contributed to the child's care or support, despite having the ability to do so. The court may also consider whether the parent subjected the child to chronic abuse, neglect, violence or sexual abuse. However, the primary issue for the court will always be whether the adoption is in the best interests of child.

Adult Adoptions

Once a person has reached the age of 18, he or she is eligible for an adult adoption. Unlike a minor adoption which necessitates the consent of the biological parents of the child, an adult adoption only requires the consent of the person who wishes to be adopted and the adoptive parents. Examples of adults who may want to be adopted are stepchildren or foster children over the age of 18 who wish to establish a legal family relationship with their non-biological families. Also, people who would like to establish inheritance rights may choose adult adoption. Generally, once a person is adopted, the birth parents of the child no longer have an intestate claim to the child's estate.

However, not all states utilize this inheritance policy. Certain states, such as Michigan and Nebraska, completely prohibit adult adoptions. Other states place restrictions on adult adoptions, such as prohibiting the use of adult adoptions to create a legal relationship between same-sex partners, only permitting adult adoptions of permanently disabled or mentally challenged people, and requiring a certain age difference between the adoptive parent and child.

International Adoption

Some couples look beyond the United States when seeking to adopt children from other nations and cultures. This requires meeting the adoption requirements in both the United States and the country where the child holds citizenship. You will likely need to enlist the help of both a U.S. agency and a foreign agency to assist with any international adoption.

Unfortunately, corruption is rife in many foreign agencies for the adoption of children. Only certain agencies now are certified by the U.S. State Department, and you must pursue an adoption through an agency in that group. American couples pursuing an international adoption must establish that the foreign agency has received consent from the biological parents, provided the biological parents with the necessary counseling, and sought unsuccessfully to place the child in his or her home nation. Long delays may ensue, but these are necessary to avert the real danger of child abduction and exploitation.