Where Are Adoption Cases Heard?

Adoption is a legal process where the adoptive family welcomes a child into their family. Family courts or probate courts hear adoption cases. An adoption is not final until the court issues a court order approving the adoption.

Jurisdiction, domicile, and venue are matters of civil procedure. The civil procedure determines the authority through which a court conducts civil matters. Jurisdiction refers to the power to make certain legal decisions. Domicile is where a person lives. Venue refers to the court's location. These three elements help determine the proper court to hear an adoption case.

They can make appropriate referrals to outside agencies when necessary. This can include referrals for a guardian ad litem or for mental health evaluations.

This article will explore the adoption process and the proper courts to start an adoption case.

Understanding the Adoption Process

Since adoptions are a legal process, a court must approve all adoptions. Prospective adoptive parents can choose between an independent or a public agency adoption. They can use any licensed agency that specializes in the placement of children.

Before the parties file a petition, the prospective adoptive parents undergo a vetting process. This often includes an orientation and home study. During the home study, a social worker or the local Department of Human Services representative gathers information. Home studies are not necessary for most stepparent adoptions.

After completing the home study, the adoption professional submits a report to the agency. Then the prospective parents can look for a child to adopt and start adoption proceedings. The filing of the petition occurs after they find a child or after the child's birth.

The birth parents must relinquish their parental rights as part of the process. In cases where one biological parent abandoned the child, the court can appoint a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem investigates the abandonment to determine if the parent intentionally abandoned the child. If the facts support abandonment, the guardian can recommend consent to the adoption. In many stepparent adoptions, children 10 years of age and older must consent to the adoption.

Finalization is the last step of the adoption process. This means the court approved the adoption. The adoptive parents are officially the legal parents of the child. They have physical and legal custody of the child. They can also get a new birth certificate for their child. The birth certificate will name the adoptive parents as the legal parents of the adoptee.

Family Court

Family courts are best suited for adoption proceedings for a few reasons. These reasons include the following:

  • Family courts hear almost all matters related to a minor child, including the termination of parental rights.
  • Family courts always use the "best interest of the child" standard.
  • Family law courts have experience in adoptions.

Jurisdiction of Adoption Cases

Every state maintains a court system where different courts hear specific cases. For example, criminal cases are under the state court's jurisdiction. The United States Supreme Court has jurisdiction over constitutional matters.

Adoption is a civil process, so certain civil courts have jurisdiction over adoption cases. In the adoption process, the prospective parents file their petition for adoption with the appropriate court.

Examples of Jurisdiction

State courts are in a hierarchy of courts of original jurisdiction. This is the level at which a court first hears the case. Appellate courts hear appeals from cases heard by lower courts. Court names vary from state to state. All adoption cases start with a petition filed with the appropriate court of original jurisdiction.

The types of court designated as the court of original jurisdiction reflect the organization of the state court system. The names can include:

  • Circuit Court
  • District Court
  • Superior Court
  • Probate Court
  • Family Court
  • Juvenile Court.

Interstate and International Jurisdiction

In 2001, the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Law (now The Uniform Law Commission-ULC) approved the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). The UCCJEA is similar to laws like the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) which protects female survivors of domestic violence. VAWA provides for interstate enforcement of protective orders. The UCCJEA provides for interstate enforcement of child custody and child support matters.

Before the UCCJEA, the parent with physical custody of the child could take that child to a different state. They could then challenge custody arrangements because their former state no longer had jurisdiction. This often resulted in conflicting court orders. The UCCJEA does not apply to cases involving Native American children when the Indian Child Welfare Act applies.

In some states, more than one court may have jurisdiction over adoption cases. Either court designated in statute may hear an adoption petition. For example, both the family court and the surrogate's (probate) court have jurisdiction over adoptions in New York.

Indian Child Welfare Act

The purpose of the Indian Child Welfare Act is to protect the best interests of Native American children. It also promotes the "stability and security" of Native American tribes and families. The Act guides the States on how to handle child abuse and neglect cases involving Native American children. It also sets basic standards for cases involving Native American children.

One purpose of the Act is to preserve the community-child relationship and Native American customs. The ICWA impacts who may adopt Native American children. There is a preference to place Native American children with Native American tribes and families in adoptions and foster care unless there is good cause not to do so. Native American children are often placed with family members, like an aunt/uncle or grandparent.

Venue for Adoption Cases

Venue refers to the specific location of the court. Most states have courts in different counties or districts throughout the state.

The court with jurisdiction at the appropriate venue location (or venue) receives the adoption petition. Often, there may be a residency rule. Venue is where the prospective parents (petitioner) or the prospective adoptee resides. The location of the child-placing agency can play a role in venue determination. A respondent in adoption cases is rare. Most birth parents relinquish their parental rights before the adoption process begins.

Get Help

The adoption process involves many legal requirements and a court process. The process is complex for most non-attorneys. An experienced adoption attorney can draft the adoption petition. They can also help determine the appropriate jurisdiction for an adoption. Speak to a local experienced adoption attorney today.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • It is a good idea to have an attorney for complex adoptions
  • An attorney can ensure you meet all legal requirements and that your adoption is finalized appropriately
  • An attorney can help protect the best interests of adoptive children, adoptive families, and birth parents
  • For simple adoptions, you may be able to do the paperwork on your own or by using an agency

Get tailored advice at any point in the adoption process. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Adopting a child is an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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