There are quite a few different ways to bring a child into your life, or confirm your legal relationship with one, through adoption. Here's the lowdown on the different ways that adoption can work. (To learn more about the procedures of adoption, see Adoption Procedures.)
Agency adoptions involve the placement of a child with adoptive parents by a public agency, or by a private agency licensed or regulated by the state.
Public agencies generally place children who have become wards of the state for reasons such as orphanage, abandonment, or abuse. Private agencies are sometimes run by charities or social service organizations. Children placed through private agencies are usually brought to the agency by a parent or parents who have or are expecting a child they want to give up for adoption. For more on adoption agencies, see Nolo's article Agency Adoptions.
In a private, or independent, adoption, no agency is involved in the adoption. Some independent adoptions involve a direct arrangement between the birth parents and the adoptive parents, while others use an intermediary such as an attorney, doctor, or clergyperson. For most independent adoptions, whether or not an intermediary is involved, the adopting parents will usually hire an attorney to take care of the court paperwork.
Most states allow independent adoptions, though many regulate them quite carefully. Independent adoptions are not allowed in Connecticut, Delaware, or Massachusetts. For more information, see Nolo's article Independent Adoptions.
An "open adoption" is an independent adoption in which the adoptive parents and birth parents have contact during the gestation period and the new parents agree to maintain some contact with the birth parents after the adoption, through letters, photos, or in-person visits.
An identified, or designated, adoption is one in which the adopting parents and the birth mother find each other and then ask an adoption agency to take over the rest of the adoption process. The process is a hybrid of an independent and an agency adoption.
Prospective adoptive parents are spared the waiting lists of agencies by finding the birth parent themselves, but they reap the benefits of the agency's counseling services and experience with adoption legalities. Everyone may simply feel more comfortable if an agency is involved. Identified adoptions are available to parents in the states (Connecticut, Delaware, and Massachusetts) that ban independent adoptions.
In an international adoption, the new parents adopt a child who is a citizen of a foreign country. In addition to satisfying the adoption requirements of both the foreign country and the parents' home state in the U.S., the parents must obtain an immigrant visa for the child through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS, formerly called the INS). The child will be granted U.S. citizenship automatically upon entering the United States.
There have been some recent changes to international adoption law:
The Hague Adoption Convention. As of April 1, 2008, the Hague Adoption Convention governs intercountry adoptions between the United States and other Convention member countries. The treaty establishes federal oversight of adoption agencies here and policies overseas. The goal is to protect children, birth parents, and adoptive families from unethical adoption practices, including child abduction and hidden fees.
New adoption requirements. Agencies in the U.S. must now be certified by the State Department, and parents planning an international adoption must prove to the State Department that the foreign country's agencies have provided counseling for the birth parents and obtained a legal consent from them, that a local placement has been considered, and that the child has been properly cleared for adoption in the U.S. These new provisions may cause international adoptions to take even longer than they have in the past, but they will also protect parents from predatory or corrupt agencies in other countries.
You can adopt a foreign child through an American agency that specializes in international adoptions -- or you can adopt directly. Most people use an agency, because direct adoption can be difficult. For more on international adoptions, see Agency Adoptions.
In a stepparent adoption, a parent's new spouse adopts a child the parent had with a previous partner. Stepparent adoption procedures are less cumbersome than agency or independent adoption procedures. The process is quite simple, especially if the child's other birth parent consents to the adoption. If the other birth parent cannot be found or if he or she refuses to consent to the adoption, there is more paperwork to do and the adoptive parents may need an attorney. For more information about stepparent adoptions, see Nolo's article Stepparent Adoptions.
Now that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, married same-sex couples have more adoption rights than ever before, including the right to petition for stepparent adoption in all 50 states and petition for second-parent adoption in states that offer it independent of marriage status.
Many states allow LGBTQ couples to adopt children jointly, making both parents legal parents at the same time. These adoptions are typically independent or arranged through domestic or international adoption agencies. But some states allow state-licensed agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs. And some private and religious adoption agencies refuse to place children with LGBTQ families. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court said that a Catholic foster care agency may ban same-sex couples from fostering and adopting. (Fulton v. The City of Philadelphia, 141 S.Ct. 1868 (2021).)
Learn more about gay and lesbian adoption and parenting.
In a relative adoption, also called a kinship adoption, a member of the child's family steps forward to adopt. Grandparents often adopt their grandchildren if the parents die while the children are minors, or if the parents are unable to take care of the children for other reasons (such as being in jail or on drugs). In most states, these adoptions are easier than non-relative adoptions. If the adopted child has siblings who are not adopted at the same time, kinship adoption procedures usually provide for contact between the siblings after the adoption.
In most states, it's legal for one adult to adopt another as long as there's at least a ten-year age difference and the parties can show why the adoption is in the interests of both the parties involved and the public good. Often, adult adoptions are stepparent adoptions that the family didn't get around to when the younger person was a minor, but wants to complete in order to assure inheritance rights.
Sometimes, older adults who don't have children of their own meet younger persons who they wish to treat as their children for inheritance purposes. There are protections in place in many states requiring oversight of adult adoptions where caregivers of the elderly are involved, in order to prevent elder financial abuse.
To learn more about adoptions and other laws that affect your daily life, get Nolo's Encyclopedia of Everyday Law: Answers to Your Most Frequently Asked Legal Questions, by Shae Irving and the Editors of Nolo.