Written by Lauren Cahn on 10/13/2020

Can you Legally Adopt an Adult?

When you think of adoption, you probably picture a young couple wishing to start a family. Perhaps they've had trouble conceiving or perhaps they've always wanted to offer a good home to a child in need. 

Either way, you’re probably envisioning a process that involves interviewing with adoption agencies and seeking out babies and young children in foster care. While that’s a common adoption scenario, it is not the only one.

In fact, not all adoptive parents are motivated by a desire to raise children, and not all adoptees are babies or even children under the age of majority. That's where adult adoption comes in. 

What is adult adoption?

Adult adoption is an adoption just like any other, except the adopted person is an adult, i.e., someone who has attained the age of majority. 

In states where adoption of an adult is legal (see below for the ways state laws differ), the adoption process is the same whether the adoptee is a child or an adult. It begins with the filing by the prospective adoptive parent(s) of a petition for adoption in family court with regard to prospective adoptee. 

The adult adoption process

After the petition for adoption is filed, an adoption hearing will usually be held, during which a judge will decide if the adoption should go through the legal process. Not all adult adoptions are approved (we'll discuss why that is below). 

But in situations where the adoption is approved, it involves the termination of parental rights of the birth parents and is finalized with the issuance of a new birth certificate for the adoptee. That new birth certificate identifies the adoptive parents as the adoptee's legal parents. 

At the end of the adoption process, all parental rights and other legal relationships between the adopted adult and their biological parents/birth parents and/or custodial parents are terminated according to the adoption agreement, including inheritance rights (which we'll discuss in greater detail below). 

In addition, the adopted adult has the right to a name change, switching to the last name of the adopting parents. This sometimes complicated process can be facilitated by a qualified attorney who's experienced in family law.

Common reasons for adult adoption

Whether the adopted child is a minor child or an adult adoptee, the purpose of adoption is to always create a parent-child relationship. In any adoption, the parent-child relationship can be beneficial to both parent and child. In adult adoption, the parent-child relationship has certain distinct benefits. These include:

  • Inheritance rights: The existence of a parent-child relationship creates inheritance rights for parent and child. Both the parent and the child can inherit from the other even in the absence of a will.
    And if there is a will, the parent-child relationship makes it more challenging for the birth family to contest what the will provides for the adopted child.  While this is true regardless of the adoptee's age, it is particularly important where someone wishes to bequeath part of their estate to a non-blood adult relative. 
  • Perpetual care for the disabled: In circumstances where the adult adoptee is disabled, the adopter may be someone who wishes to indefinitely take care of the disabled adult child. This is known as "perpetual care."
     Adult adoption removes some of the red tape that might otherwise complicate a perpetual care scenario. For example, the adoptive "parent" will have the right to make decisions on behalf of the adopted adult and may be able to have the adopted child included on their family health insurance plan.  
  • Formalizing a step relationship: Adult adoption can also formalize the familial bond between a stepparent and a grown stepchild.
    This might be desirable in the case of a second marriage where either or both spouses have grown children. It might also be desirable in the case of a long-standing stepparent/stepchild relationship after the biological parents of the adult stepchild have died.
  • Formalizing a foster relationship: Adult adoption also can create a  legal connection where none had existed previously between a foster parent and their former foster child, after the foster child has become an adult. 

Differences in state laws

Adult adoption is legal in the United States, but each state has the right to legislate the rules that apply. To find out if adult adoption is permitted in your state, and under what circumstances, you can inquire with the Secretary of State. You can also consult with a lawyer familiar with the adoption laws of your state. However, here is a sampling of the ways state laws differ:

  • Approximately 30 states allow any person of any age to be adopted. 
  • Some states allow adult adoption, but only before the adoptee has reached 21 years of age.
  • Some states require the adoptee to be younger than the adopter.
  • In Ohio, adult adoption is permitted

    • for the purpose of providing perpetual care (discussed above)
    • where the adoptee is a former foster child
    • in the case of stepparent adoption, but only when the parent-child relationship began during the adoptee's childhood, 
  • In Alabama, adult adoption is permitted only for the purpose of perpetual care.
  • Some states require the adult adoptee's spouse to consent to the adoption (if the adult adoptee is married).

Common reasons for rejection of an adult adoption petition

The most common reason for an adult adoption petition to be rejected is the existence of a sexual relationship between "parent" and "child." The reason is this would create a parent-child relationship with existing incest issues, especially troubling in a case that involves a pronounced age difference between the parties. 

Additionally, it could imply fraud, and suspected fraud is another reason an adoption might not be approved. Fraud is usually suspected when the adopting parent does not appear to fully understand the consequences of the adoption (which, as discussed above, will change the inheritance rights of the adopting parent's biological children). 

How to navigate the adult adoption process

Because there are usually numerous parties and a variety of possibilities involved in an adult adoption case, the best way to understand, initiate, or navigate the process is to enlist the services of a qualified family law attorney who has experience with adoption cases, especially those between adults, if possible.

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