The finalization of a child’s adoption marks the finish line of a marathon. When a court issues a decree of adoption, your relationship as parent and child is permanently and legally established. It’s true that most families do not have to dress up, go to court, and tell their children, under oath, “I love you and I want you to be mine forever.” What a blessing it is that we do.
Finalization of adoption usually takes place between three months and a year after the child comes home. An adoption cannot be finalized until the birth parents’ revocation period (ranging from hours to months) has expired and the family’s social worker has completed at least one post-placement visit. (If you are adopting from foster care, finalization may happen soon after your child is deemed legally free.)
An adoption may be finalized in the state where the child was born or in the adoptive parents’ state of residence. I find that most parents want to finalize in the state where they live, but the decision is largely driven by logistics and by which state’s laws are more favorable for the adoptive parents (for instance, the state that maintains a putative father registry, or the one with a shorter revocation period). Because finalization is a matter of state law, you’ll want to be represented by an attorney, even if you adopted through an agency.
What to Expect at the Hearing
Typically, a hearing is closed to the public, but open to all family and friends whom you choose to invite. The judge or court staff will have reviewed the paperwork in advance to make sure that everything is in order, so the proceedings are brief, about 30 to 60 minutes. Here’s what happens where I practice:
1. The adoptive parents, the adopted child, the family’s attorney, and, sometimes, their social worker assemble in a courtroom or in the judge’s chambers. The entire family stands up in front of the judge, and the judge swears them in.
2. The attorney asks the parents to introduce themselves, and elicits brief testimony to verify that the adoption should take place. If the child is old enough, the lawyer may ask him if he wants the adoption to proceed. (None of the questions are hard — they are designed to demonstrate your understanding that adoption is a permanent, lifelong commitment, and that you and your partner will be equally responsible for the child if your marriage should end.)
3. The attorney then asks the family to confirm for the judge that their intention is to provide the child with a loving home. The judge may ask the family some friendly questions and invite everyone to take a picture together (many allow older children to bang the gavel!).
4. At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge signs the decree of adoption, and any other orders related to the adoption, such as an order approving a payment of living expenses to the birth mother, or terminating an alleged father’s parental rights.
For the adoptions I oversee, I ask the court to issue three certified copies of the decree. I keep one in my office, and the other two go home with the parents. Because adoption records are sealed, it is extremely difficult to obtain copies of the legal documents associated with the adoption. Keep your certified copies in a safe deposit or fireproof box, along with birth certificates, passports, deeds, and other important papers.
The Paperchase Winds Down
Finalization also results in the issuance of a new birth certificate for your child. In our courts, the clerk automatically sends a certified copy of the decree to the appropriate state agency, which sends the family a new birth certificate naming the adoptive parents as the “natural parents.” If the child was born in a different state, the agencies in both states will communicate regarding the issuance of the new birth certificate. In these cases, it can take a few months to receive that certificate in the mail.
If you adopted internationally, obtaining a U.S. birth certificate is one of the main reasons to readopt in your state — even if you have the foreign equivalent of a decree of adoption and a birth certificate from your child’s home country.
In terms of legal requirements, you are done! Most state laws make it virtually impossible to contest an adoption for any reason other than fraud, so you can safely let out that last breath you have been holding. And then, back to the starting line — to begin your most challenging and rewarding marathon yet. Good luck, new families!