Most experts recommend, indeed strongly recommend, that you obtain legal counsel if you are attempting to adopt a child. In fact, not just any attorney will do; you need an attorney who specializes in family law and adoption, as this can be one of the most complicated areas of the law. There are many forms and procedures that must be done meticulously correct. Not only do state laws differ considerably, but there are elements of federal law that come into play.
Still, if you want to handle the legal matters yourself throughout the process (called an “adoption pro se”), you can do it. All adoptions will be challenging for a layperson, but some less so than others. A contested adoption, for instance, where, say, the biological father is fighting to stop your adopting the child, can get very complicated, and one misstep can cost you the child.
On the other hand, let’s say you are a stepparent who has functioned as the father of your now adult stepdaughter for 20 years, and all of you now want to formalize this already existing father-daughter relationship by going through a legal adoption, as more of a symbolic gesture than anything. In that case, with everyone on the same side, and the whole situation being amicable, it’s not as big a deal if you cause a delay because you didn’t submit a certain form by a certain time, or you weren’t aware of some formality you needed to go through. You’ll presumably get through the process eventually.
There are legal kits you can obtain online that can help you if you’re determined to do an adoption without a lawyer.
The process should go roughly like this (this is based on California law as an example; there will be certain differences from state to state):
1. After your child is placed with you by the adoption agency, your adoption counselor will meet with you periodically to assess how things are going. The counselor will write post placement reports after each visit to your home, each meeting with you in the agency office, and each telephone contact. After a certain number of satisfactory reports, the counselor will recommend that the adoption be legally finalized. Explain that you are proceeding as an adoption pro se. That way the agency will send to you its written consent to the adoption, and the other paperwork that is necessary from its end. Also make sure with the agency that all necessary consents, accounting reports, relinquishments, and termination of parental rights procedures have been completed.
2. You next need to fill out various forms, including an Adoption Request, an Order Directing Filing of Placement and Post-Placement Reports, a Findings of Fact and Conclusion of Law, a Note for Hearing on the Adoption Calendar, and a Decree of Adoption. The Adoption Request you must have notarized.
3. You will then need to bring to the clerk of your county court the consent form from your adoption agency, the notarized Adoption Request, the Order Directing Filing of Placement and Post-Placement Reports, and enough money to cover the filing fee (usually about $100). The Order Directing Filing of Placement and Post-Placement Reports needs to be signed by a judge. The clerk will direct you how to get that signature, and will assign your case a case number. You should also obtain from the clerk the necessary forms to order a birth certificate for the child with the new parents’ names, and find out how to go about filing that and how much it will cost.
4. Next you need to obtain from the adoption agency the “Placement and Post-Placement Report,” the standard cover letter for the court that the agency sends with this report, and the “Adoption Data Card.” File all these with your county court.
5. In advance of your requested court day (most courts require at least two weeks notice, some longer), you’ll need to take the “Note for Hearing on the Adoption Calendar” to the clerk of your county court to set up the court date.
6. Then on the court date, you’ll need to bring the “Findings of Fact and Conclusion of Law,” the “Decree of Adoption,” any forms you’d obtained at the clerk’s direction for the birth certificate, and money for the necessary fees.
Again, this is only roughly how you’ll need to proceed, as state laws differ, and there are specific things that need to be done in some cases and not others. Chances are it won’t be this straightforward (if this can be considered straightforward), which is why you’re almost always going to be better off hiring an attorney.
One compromise to consider, if you really can’t afford the attorney fees or for whatever reason don’t want an attorney handling the whole thing, is to do the bulk of the work yourself-research the procedure in your state, obtain and fill out the necessary forms, etc.-and then pay a lawyer to look over what you’ve done and advise you if you’ve left anything out or made any mistakes. That way you should only have to pay for a small fraction of the number of hours it would have taken the attorney to do it all from start to finish.
“Adopting Without a Lawyer.” Easy Adopt.
“How can I file for adoption on my own filing papers without an attorney?” Avvo.