Adoption papers are generally legal documents that are filed as part of the adoption process. Every state’s requirements are different. Adoption papers...

Adoption Papers

If you are new to the adoption process, you’ve probably heard a lot of terms that relate to various adoption papers, and you might be overwhelmed and confused. This article explains what these various adoption papers are and why they are important. 

Birth Parent Adoption Papers

Adoption papers are generally legal documents that are filed as part of the adoption process. Every state’s requirements are different. Adoption papers are required at various stages of the adoption. Before the baby is born, the birth parents complete background information regarding their social and medical histories. This can include information about their immediate family members, including other children they are parenting. The birth parents will also sign an authorization form allowing their adoption attorney or adoption agency to share this information with the prospective adoptive parents. The background information that birth parents provide is really important. It helps the adoptive parents prepare for parenting the adoptee and may provide them with vital information about the medical history of their adopted child.

Indian Child Welfare Act

In states where it applies, the birth parents will complete adoption papers that comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) rules in their home state, or the state where the baby is born, prior to delivery. It is important that these forms be completed before the baby is born so the adoption attorney or adoption agency can determine whether the child has Native American Heritage and is eligible for membership in a federally recognized Native American tribe. In every case where a child may be eligible, the tribe must be given notice of the proposed adoption. If the child is eligible, the tribe may have rights with respect to whether the adoption can move forward with the prospective adoptive parents.

Birth Father Papers

Birth mothers also complete adoption papers regarding the identity of the birth father or fathers. The birth mother completes this paperwork, frequently called a declaration or affidavit, under penalty of perjury. Instead of appearing in court, the birth mother’s declaration or affidavit will be used as evidence to determine the birth father’s rights and whether/how to terminate them. It is always better to get this information before the baby is born so the adoptive parents will understand the potential risk of the adoption and how and if the birth father’s rights will be terminated.

While a birth mother cannot sign relinquishment or consent paperwork prior to delivery, many states allow birth fathers to sign adoption papers before the baby is born. In many states, including California, this adoption paper is called a waiver. Typically, this form says that by signing it, the father waives his right to further notifications about the adoption. In other words, the adoption can move forward without his involvement.  

These are the main adoption papers that are available and required before the baby is born. Following these are the adoption papers that are typically required after the baby is born. Most of these adoption papers are forms that will be filed with the court to put the legal process for terminating parental rights in motion. This process also puts the establishment of adoptive parents’ rights in motion as well. 

Adoption Papers after Baby Is Born

Every state’s laws regarding their required adoption papers are different. Typically, after the baby is born, the adopting parents (or their attorney) will file an adoption request or petition with the appropriate court. The petition or request names the adoptive parents as petitioners. Some states want the petition or request filed immediately after the birth mother signs her consent or relinquishments. Other states may want the adoption petition or request filed closer to the adoption’s finalization.   

There are several other adoption papers that the court requires as part of the adoption. These can include petitions/requests to terminate birth parents’ parental rights or the orders that have already been issued to terminate rights. Frequently, the paperwork regarding the ICWA inquiry must be filed with the court as well. Many courts, prior to scheduling the finalization hearing, want other papers filed for the court to sign at the finalization hearing. 

In California, for instance, these adoption papers include the adoption agreement, the adoption order, a statement of expenses, and the post-adoption contact agreement between the birth parents and adoptive parents, if applicable. The court may also want papers that they can provide to the state’s Office of Vital Statistics. In California, this is called the court report of adoption. The Vital Statistics Office uses this form to amend the adoptee’s birth certificate and issue a new one with adoptive parents’ names and the name they have given the baby. The original birth certificate, naming the biological mother and the baby’s original name, is removed.

Where Do I Get Adoption Papers?

Adoption papers are available at your local court. Many adoptive parents and birth parents go through the adoption process without the help of an adoption agency or an adoption attorney. This typically happens when both birth parents are planning to sign adoption papers for consent or relinquishment. In other words, no one is planning to contest the adoption.  

You may be able to find adoption papers on your local court’s website. It’s important to know before the baby is born where you plan to file your adoption matter because you will need to use that court’s forms. While every state has different forms, generally speaking, the forms are the same throughout the state.  

If your local court offers free family law services at the court, you may go directly to the court to obtain adoption papers. The court clerk or some other court-appointed assistant, may be able to direct you to the right forms. In some courts, they will even help you complete these forms. If you go to the court, make the most of your time, and be sure to take as much information with you as possible so you are prepared to complete adoption papers there.  

Adoption papers are sometimes available at local county offices. This could be the Department of Child and Family Services or Department of Social Services for Adoptions or some other county office. Again, every state is different. Many times, these county offices will also do the adoption investigation (i.e., a home study). The social workers in these offices are often well-versed in adoption matters and may even help the parties complete adoption papers on their own. 

Finally, legal aid offices that provide free or low-cost legal services may have adoption papers as well. These services aren’t widely available, but it’s worth researching any local resources just in case.

Do I Need an Attorney to Complete Adoption Papers?

Generally speaking, an attorney is not required in most adoptions. However, it is almost always a good idea to hire an adoption attorney or an adoption agency to guide you through the process. If your adoption papers are not completed or filed properly with the courts, your adoption is at risk. This is especially true when it comes to terminating parental rights. Each state has different rules about what papers must be completed, how to complete them, who to serve them on, where to file them, and when all of this needs to be done. While courts will likely be patient and flexible with parties who don’t have attorneys, the courts are mandated to follow the law. If your adoption papers don’t comply with the law, the court can’t bend or break rules for you.

Therefore, most adoptive parents will hire an adoption attorney to complete and file adoption papers involving terminating birth parents’ rights. Other instances where adoptive parents should hire an attorney to complete adoption papers include out-of-state adoptions and adoptions involving a child with Native American heritage. Both of these cases involve detailed adoption paperwork that must be completed correctly. In the case of an out-of-state adoption, if the paperwork is incomplete or incorrect, the adoptive parents will be out-of-state for an indeterminate amount of time until the papers are completed and corrected. In the case of a Native American adoption, the tribe may overturn the adoption in years to come.

If your adoption is really straightforward—local, no Native American heritage, all parents with rights will consent or rights have already been terminated—then you may not need an adoption attorney to complete adoption papers. This is often true with kinship adoptions or adoption among family members.

Are Adoption Papers Confidential?

Adoption paperwork completed by adoptive parents and birth parents as part of the adoption process is kept confidential. The information in these documents is private and contains sensitive information. As a result, all parties must sign authorizations for this information to be disclosed to other parties. They must also sign authorizations for the information to be disclosed to their agency, social workers, and other investigative agencies. If the adoption doesn’t move forward, parties cannot disclose information about other parties to the public. From an ethical perspective, all information should be destroyed and cannot be used for any purpose.

Once the adoption is finalized, the court seals the case and the file is confidential. This is true in many family law matters involving children and terminating parental rights. The public policy behind this is to protect the privacy of all involved, particularly the child or adoptee.

Changing Laws about the Confidentiality of Adoption Papers

Laws about the confidentiality of adoption files have changed before, however. Today, many states have enacted laws that allow adoptees access to their adoption files. In these cases, the adoption is no longer entirely confidential with respect to the parties, but the public is still generally barred from accessing the information in these files.  

It used to be that all adoption cases were closed and confidential matters. It was impossible for an adoptee to get information about his or her adoption, including original birth certificates. Adoptees tend to want this information because it includes the name or names of biological parents. The birth certificate also includes the birth mother’s maiden name and the name of the hospital where she delivered. This is helpful information when an adoptee wants to find his or her biological parents. Many adoptees want to find these family members to get medical information and learn if there are biological siblings.  

What to Do if There’s a Mistake in the Adoption Papers

It’s really important to make sure you have the most up-to-date adoption papers. States are constantly updating forms to reflect changing laws and other requirements. It can be difficult to determine which forms are most current and which have become obsolete. One way to determine if you have the correct forms is to check the state’s website. Finding forms online through an online service is risky because they don’t always have up-to-date forms. If you make a mistake and file the wrong adoption papers, you may have to start over and refile using the correct form.

It’s also important to double-check the information on adoption papers. Courts, agencies, and vital statistics offices use the information on the forms to determine who has parental rights and how to terminate them. For instance, if you spell the birth father’s name incorrectly, there is a risk that the wrong man will be served with notice and that the actual father is never served. This puts your adoption at risk.

Another common, if not the most common, mistake in adoption papers involves the amended birth certificate. When the adoption is finalized, the court sends a report regarding the adoption to the Office of Vital Statistics. This office uses the information in the court’s form to amend the birth certificate and issue a new one. It is a hassle when the amended birth certificate has mistakes, but unfortunately, this is common. These mistakes can include the misspelling of names or an inaccurate birth date. If the birth date on the court form doesn’t match the birth date on the original birth certificate, vital statistics will return everything to the adoptive parents and tell them it needs to be corrected. Typically, the only way to correct this is with an amended order from the court. Therefore, it’s important to make sure you review all adoption papers and verify their accuracy—not just facts but also spelling—before they are submitted to various agencies or filed with the court.

Finding the right adoption papers, completing them correctly, and filing them appropriately are really important aspects of the adoption process. Finding support in an adoption attorney or adoption agency can be invaluable in ensuring your adoption is solid, legal, and as smooth a process as possible.

Megan Cohen

Megan Cohen is a California adoption attorney and a birth mother. You can read more about Megan and the adoption work she does at