Adult adoption: a public policy question

While there are many emotional and/or legal reasons for adult adoptions, there are also numerous accompanying public policy issues.

Photo: Charee Godwin-Smith and her husband, Kerry Smith, adopted 22-year-old Billy, a Marine aviation operations specialist/ Oprah (Courtesy of Google Images)

A quick search on Youtube will reveal a plethora of emotional adoption videos.  They include videos of step-fathers being surprised with adoption paperwork for their birthdays, step-children being adopted for Christmas, and a myriad of other circumstances.  Among those videos are adult adoptions, even if they are not necessarily what first comes to mind when we think about adoption.  Most of us will think about kids being adopted from impoverished countries or perhaps even one being adopted by a celebrity;  however, most states allow some form of adult adoption.

One such situation played out recently in North Carolina.  A man walked into an attorney’s office in Fayetteville and asked for help creating a will.  The man explained that he wanted the majority of his estate to go to his wife.  He also explained that if he happened to survive his wife, he wanted his estate to go to another young lady.  The paralegal working on his case questioned him about his relationship to the young woman.  He explained that she was—or had been—his stepdaughter.  He further explained that when the young woman was approximately eight years old he had moved in with her mother.  The child had not had contact with her biological father since 1987.   The man and the young woman’s mother lived together for the next three years.  During those three years, the woman’s child had regarded him as her father and referred to him that way.  When the relationship between the man and the young woman’s mother ended, his fatherly relationship with her daughter continued.  From 1995 to 2017 the young lady continued to look up to the man as if he was her father.

His face lit up as he asked, “Really? You can adopt an adult?”

When the paralegal heard the story, she asked the man if he was aware that he could adopt her.  His face lit up as he asked, “Really? You can adopt an adult?”  The paralegal continued to work on his will and left the man to follow up on the adoption situation on his own.

Several days later, the man returned and explained that he believed the process was going to be too difficult to do on his own and he wanted help from the law office.  The law office went to work and prepared all the necessary paperwork.  The man was listed on the paperwork as Parent 1 and the biological mother was listed as Parent 2.

The biological mother provided an affidavit describing the fatherly relationship that the man had maintained with her daughter for approximately 25 years.  The mother ended her affidavit stating, “Please consider this my testimony as to my belief that he would be an outstanding adoptive father to my daughter, and that this adoption would solidify and cement an already healthy and supportive relationship between them.”

The adoption proceeded through the county level and everything seemed to be on track.  A Decree of Adult Adoption was signed by a District Court Judge and it was time to move on to the state level of the adoption process.  Despite initial progress, the law office soon received a phone call informing them that the State of North Carolina was not going to allow the adoption to go through as it was currently set up.  North Carolina General Statute §48-5-101 allows an adult to adopt any other adult, with the exception of the adult’s spouse.

The young lady would have to choose between being adopted by the man or maintaining the legal relationship she had with her biological mother.

The problem was not with the man adopting the young woman, but rather, with the biological mother remaining on the birth certificate as a parent.  The biological mother and the man had been divorced for many years and the State would not allow non-married couples to adopt.  In a typical adoption of a child, the adoption by an adult or a couple terminates the rights of the existing parents.  The young lady would have to choose between being adopted by the man or maintaining the legal relationship she had with her biological mother.  The adult adoption, which initially seemed like the perfect answer, soon created an impossible situation with seemingly no solution.

The purpose of adult adoptions is often an emotional one. In 2010, a family adopted a 22-year-old Marine who they had cared for after his mother died in his teenage years.  When the Marine’s anticipated father asked him if he wanted to be adopted, he explained that he wanted the young man to know how much the family loved him.  The Marine said immediately said yes and later stated, “For maybe the first time in my whole life, I felt truly loved.”

While biological parents are not involved in many adult adoptions, in other adult adoptions, the adult still has parents but is estranged from them.  This is the case for 35-year-old Jillian Titus.  She actually met her adoptive parents at a video game company, where they all worked. After growing close to the couple and sharing her troubled childhood, the couple decided to make things official.  They hired an attorney and officially became a legal family three months later.  Titus now refers to her biological parents as her “ex-parents.”

There are other purposes for adult adoptions as well.  Prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage, adult adoptions were popular for establishing legal rights between gay couples. Couples could use the adoption process to create legal rights similar to those between married couples.  This was allowed by some states and not others.  For example, New York found the sexual components of the relationships to be incompatible with adoption, while Delaware allowed the adoptions. Seeing as how same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide, this usage of the adult adoption process is no longer an issue.

The effects on inheritance create another use for adult adoptions.  By changing the legal relationships between adults, intestate inheritances can be drastically effected.  Take for example the case of a woman in Virginia, who died intestate (without a will).  Her closest biological relatives were a niece and a nephew; however, the woman’s sister (the mother of the niece and nephew) had been adopted as a 53-year-old.  The Virginia Supreme Court ruled the adoption had severed the relationship between the niece and nephew and their aunt, and therefore they could not inherit.  While adoption can still be used as an estate planning tool, it can have complicated, and sometimes unforeseen consequences.

Why should the young lady have to choose between the only real father she has ever known and her biological mother?

Adult adoption raises additional questions about the concept of a “family unit.”  Family dynamics have evolved throughout the years, and continue to change due to influences like same-sex marriage and reproductive technology.  Adult adoption has the potential to be just as influential.  Why should the young lady have to choose between the only real father she has ever known and her biological mother?  Had she been adopted before they divorced, the relationship would still be intact.  Or, if the former couple remarried, he could adopt her.  While her mother’s former relationship brought the young woman’s “father” into her life, it is because of this former relationship that she cannot be adopted.  While it matters in the eyes of the law, the role each parent plays in her life is not changed by the relationship between the parents.

Many questions about adult adoptions and the public policy behind it still need to be addressed.  When one considers that a 35- year-old can be adopted by a married couple she has befriended for only a short time, but another woman cannot be adopted by her stepfather because he is no longer married to her mother, it seems clear that a public policy discussion is necessary.  As more and more of these unusual situations occur, and family dynamics continue to change, that public policy conversation will likely develop.

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About Eric Ditmore (9 Articles)
Eric served as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer, and recently celebrated his early, well-deserved graduation from Campbell University School of Law. Originally from Linden, NC., Eric received his undergraduate degree in education from Fayetteville State University. Before beginning law school, he was a high school teacher and a deputy with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. During his time at Campbell, Eric has worked with the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, the Fayetteville Police Department, and the law firm of Lewis, Deese, and Nance. He is interested in pursuing work in either family law or as a legal advisor for a law enforcement agency.