Understanding the Legal Basics of Adoption

adoption legal basics

Understanding the Legal Basics of Adoption

Adoption is a major, life-changing choice. Before getting started, you will want to learn as much as you can, including the steps involved and the legal terminology. You will be dealing with a lot of new information at a time when you’re making emotionally charged decisions. If you think adoption may be right for you, but you’re overwhelmed or uncertain where to start, read on for the basics of adoption. The words in bold text are key terms you will wish to learn.


Decide if Adoption is Right For You

The website AdoptUsKids.com offers resources to connect prospective adoptive parents with others who have experienced the process. Watch online videos, join Facebook groups, or get in touch with adoptive families directly. Learn as much as possible from firsthand sources. Do not base this decision on things you’ve seen in movies or on television.

Share your thoughts with all close members of your family and your closest friends. Adding to your family affects many people around you and you will be stronger with a solid support base.


Speak to a Lawyer

While you can proceed without a lawyer, one experienced with family law can provide you invaluable information and get you on the right track. He or she can recommend an adoption agency and help you understand laws specific to your state or county. When you need to attend hearings or if legal complications arise, you lawyer can represent you in court.

Remember, as the adoptive parent, you are responsible for all legal and agency fees.


Get Licensed

It takes four to twelve months to earn your license to adopt a child. Search your county’s family services website for agencies. Either a public or private agency can walk you through the licensing process.

You will need to complete training and a home study. A home study is when a social worker visits and tours your home, getting to know you and the rest of your immediate family, including pets and anyone else who lives with you. The social worker will draft a report for the adoption agency.

You will need to provide several documents confirming your identity. These include:

  • Birth certificates for you and your partner or spouse, if applicable
  • A certified copy of your marriage license, if applicable
  • Certified copies of any divorce decrees
  • Birth certificates or adoption decrees for any children you already have
  • Proof of your income

Some agencies recommend that you get licensed for both adoption and foster care, even if you don’t plan to foster. According to AdoptUsKids, “being approved to both foster and adopt can expedite the placement of a child with you for the purposes of adoption.”


The Adoption Process

The first step in any adoption is Termination of Parental Rights or TPR. You might already be involved at this stage if you are a foster parent or you know the birth parents. Otherwise, this step may take place long before you meet your future child.

TPR takes place during a court hearing, where a judge permanently ends all legal parental rights of a birth parent to a child. An adoption is considered to be high risk if the rights have not yet been terminated. That is because the other birth parent or another relative may step in and get approved as the legal parent. In addition, the birth parent has a window of time during which they can change their mind. The time window varies by state.

Sometimes, the court will allow a child to be placed in a prospective adoptive family before TPR is complete. This is known as an at-risk placement.

When a child being adopted is twelve or older, the child’s consent may also be needed. This also varies by state.



Your agency will match you to a child. This sometimes takes time, especially if you have specific criteria in mind. Once they find a possible child, you will visit with him or her several times

Once the child is legally eligible for adoption, you will take the child into your care. This period usually lasts at least six months. During this time, the child might be legally in the foster care system, making them the county’s legal responsibility. You will file a legal intent to adopt petition, generally with the advice of your lawyer.



County or state officials will maintain close contact with your family to monitor the child’s welfare. You, your family, and lawyer will appear before a judge and answer some basic questions. You will receive an adoption decree and amended birth certificate.


Closed Adoption vs. Open Adoption

Whether you want an open or closed adoption is something you should think through early in the process. In an open adoption, you will know the birth mother or both birth parents. You may continue contact with them after the adoption is complete. In a closed adoption, you will not know the birth parents’ identities and they will not know yours. After the child is 18, he or she will be able to choose whether to attempt to contact the birth parents.

These steps represent only an outline of the adoption process. You can learn more detail here, but remember that each adoption is unique. Your best bet is to remain flexible and open to change, keeping your focus on the end result — a happy, healthy family.


IMAGE: Gerd AltmannCC0 Public Domain

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