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An adoption is a legally binding transfer of parenting rights to the adoptive parent(s). Adoption, which falls under the umbrella of family law, comes in many forms, each with its own set of rules and regulations as well as advantages and disadvantages.


In general, adoptions in the U.S, are governed by state law(s) and can be quite complex. If you are considering adoption, you should contact an adoption attorney to learn more about the laws that may apply to your situation.

Agency Adoption

Adoption agencies match birth and adoptive parents (increasingly in an open process), conduct a home study and provide assistance with regulations. Agencies serve everyone in the adoption process, including the adoptive parents, the birthparents and the children. In some cases these needs and interests may conflict. Hiring a family law attorney is the best way to ensure your interests are represented.

Private agencies are licensed by the government and generally handle domestic baby adoptions, adoptions of children from other countries and, sometimes, foster children. A key advantage is the counseling services they provide. Studies have shown that birth parents who receive appropriate counseling are more aware of the benefits and drawbacks of adoption and are less likely to change their minds.

There are fewer children, especially for infant adoption, than there are people who want to adopt. As a result applicants pursuing a baby adoption may be screened on arbitrary criteria such as age, religion and sexual orientation. Private agency adoption costs can run between $5,000 and $40,000 depending on the agency and the services provided.1 The waiting time is unpredictable.

Public agencies place children who are in the foster care system. These agencies have many children who are available for adoption; many are older and/or have special needs. A child who enters the public adoption system is usually placed with a family within 12 months.2 The agency handling the adoption covers most of the legal and other expenses. Additionally, the adoptive parents may be eligible for tax credits and ongoing subsidies. However, the lower cost means fewer services, including counseling services.

Relative Adoptions

Relative or kinship adoption is faster and easier than most other forms of adoption. States differ on the definition of a relative, but generally give preference to grandparents, followed by adult siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Many states abbreviate or waive the pre-placement assessment, though some require a criminal record check be performed on the adoptive parents and household members.

Relative adoption keeps a beloved child within the family. However, it changes the family dynamics and may confuse the legal and emotional relationships of immediate and extended relations. Accordingly, it is important to have support services in place for the family before, during and after the adoption. Even in a relative adoption situation, there can be difficulty and disagreement; a family lawyer can help protect your legal rights and the rights of the child.

Stepparent Adoption

Adoption by a stepparent is the most common form of adoption.3 Stepparent adoption is easier than a non-relative adoption. Many states abbreviate or waive the waiting period, home study and possibly the adoption hearing.

Most states require that the custodial parent and stepparent be married for at least one year and require the consent of both the spouse and the child's other parent. Unfortunately, consent can be difficult to obtain from the parent who does not have child custody following a divorce, because he/she is relinquishing all parental rights. If the non-custodial parent refuses to consent, the state may block the adoption. Some states allow a stepparent to adopt without consent in certain cases, usually when the other parent has not been in communication with the child for a period of time.

For more information on your state's laws pertaining to stepparent adoption, you will need to contact a family law attorney.

International Adoption

For children who are not able to be permanently placed with a family in their country of origin, international adoption, also called inter-country adoption, may be the best solution. Last year, Americans adopted almost 20,000 children from other countries in addition to the more than 200,000 currently living in the U.S.4 Inter-country adoptions are becoming increasingly popular. Movie stars Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt as well as pop superstar Madonna have all recently adopted children from foreign countries.

International adoptions are facilitated either with the assistance of an agency or, less commonly, as an independent adoption. They are subject to state laws, laws of the country of origin, and U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) requirements. In all inter-country adoptions, parents must obtain an immigration visa for the child. If an adopted child has not resided with and been in the legal custody of the adopting parent for at least two years (or if he/she has not yet been adopted), the child must qualify for an "orphan" visa, which means that:

  • The child has no parents due to abandonment or death; or
  • The child has one parent who has irrevocably released the child for adoption; and
  • The child is less than 16 years of age (or 18 years of age if a younger sibling has been adopted into the same family); and
  • The child has been or will be adopted by a married U.S. citizen and spouse jointly, or by an unmarried U.S. citizen at least 25 years of age.5

Children adopted from foreign countries may be undernourished, and/or have developmental delays and/or emotional problems, but be otherwise healthy. Parents may wish to consult a doctor with international adoption experience to review the child's records and to examine the child once home. In addition, parents are advised to speak with a family lawyer with expertise in international adoption.

The average cost of an international adoption is between $7,000 and $30,000, though there may be additional costs such as:

  • Foster care
  • Travel/extended stay in country of origin
  • Escort fees (if an escort, rather than the parent, accompanies the child on the flight)
  • Medical care and treatment
  • Translation fees
  • Foreign attorney fees6

The waiting time varies by country; however, some countries can predict wait time from matching to placement. For more information on inter-country adoption, consult an experienced adoption attorney.

Independent Adoption

In an independent adoption, children are placed directly by the birthparent(s) with the adoptive parents. An attorney or facilitator may help you identify expectant parent(s) or you may locate them on your own. Independent adoption is sometimes a good option for parents pursuing an infant adoption, as there are no waiting lists or agency restrictions.

Identified adoption is a form of independent adoption in which birthparent(s) and adoptive parents find each other independently and bypass agency waiting lists, but then engage a licensed adoption agency together to facilitate the home study and counseling services. In some states, identified adoption is the only form of independent adoption allowed.

Initiating an independent adoption can be a lot of work and often involves risks both financial and emotional. Adoptive parents may use networking, advertising or the Internet.

State laws governing independent adoption tend to be more restrictive. Some states prohibit advertising for a birth mother, or limit the amount you can contribute to the mother's expenses. Others states prohibit independent adoptions altogether.

Independent adoption costs range between $8,000 and $40,000, but compared to agency adoptions, the costs associated with independent adoptions may be less predictable and may not be reimbursable if a birth mother changes her mind.

Independent adoption is a complex process that often requires the assistance of an adoption attorney.

1Child Welfare Information Gateway
2AdoptUSKids (
3Child Welfare Information Gateway
4United States Citizen and Immigration Services
5United States Department of State
6Child Welfare Information Gateway

Did You Know?

Adoption by a stepparent generally has no effect on a child's legal right to inherit from either birth parent or other family members.