Children become consenting adults when they turn 18, but that’s also the age at which a few will seek to legally become someone’s son or daughter.
Adult adoptions are fairly rare, but they’re sought for a host of reasons from the sentimental to the sensible, family law attorneys say.
Indianapolis attorney Mary Jane Norman said the process usually makes the new parent and child “very, very, very happy.”
Norman recalled representing a client who wanted to adopt a foster child but a biological parent would not consent, even though the child had bonded with the foster parent and also wanted to be adopted.
For children in such a situation, Norman said, “It’s good that they know, as soon as they turn 18, (guardians) can adopt me and the parents can’t do a darn thing about it.” Norman said she had one case in which the adoption was formalized the day the child turned 18.
Indiana makes adult adoptions straightforward between consenting parties. Unlike some states, there’s no notice or consent requirement for biological parents, and judges have authority to grant the petition “with the consent of the individual acknowledged in open court,” according to I.C. 31-19-2-1.
“It’s practically the easiest thing that can be done in the legal profession,” said Dick Clem, an Indianapolis attorney who’s worked on four or five adult adoptions in his 41 years in the profession.
“I did one a while ago where a woman I think was 40 years old, and she always thought of her stepfather as her father her whole life,” Clem said. “She just wanted him to adopt her.”
Marion Superior Probate Judge Gerald Zore said the petitions, like all other adoption matters, are confidential, but typically they aim to formalize a bond that exists between stepparents or foster parents and their children.
But there are more practical reasons, too. Denise Safford, adoption coordinator in Zore’s court, said that in the past two years about 3 percent of the more than 500 petitions filed annually have been from people seeking to adopt someone 18 or older.
“When it’s a stepparent and the adult being adopted is in their 40s or 50s, really the stepparent has been a parent figure to them for many years, and so the stepparent really wants to get it done, especially if they don’t have a will or don’t want to do a will,” Safford said.
In such a situation, there are implications for the stepchild, particularly if the adopting parent dies intestate. “If they’re adopted, they have the same rights of inheritance as a biological child,” she said.
Stepparents in some cases also may want to pursue adoption of their adult stepchildren to ensure grandparent visitation rights, Safford said.
Matthew Schoettmer is an attorney at Van Valer Law Firm LLP in Greenwood who also is an officer in the Indiana National Guard. As such, he fields the occasional legal inquiry from soldiers.
“One of the other soldiers in my unit came up to me and wanted to adopt his wife’s daughter so that she could benefit from his Veterans Administration educational benefits,” Schoettmer said. He was happy to oblige.
In that case, the girl’s biological father died when she was young. Her mother remarried the Guardsman, and the daughter grew up knowing her stepfather as her dad, Schoettmer said.
“They had never seen a legal need to have an adoption until she was going to go to college and (her stepfather) was going to give his GI Bill benefits to her,” he said. The VA limits those benefits to biological and adopted children.
But Schoettmer said his work accomplished more than that. The stepdaughter also obtained an amended birth certificate and changed her name to that of her stepfather, “so that she could identify with him and say, ‘This man is my father.’ … It helped give them a piece of paper to show to the rest of the world they were a family, and more than just stepfather and stepdaughter.”
Indianapolis attorney Travis Van Winkle recalled a client who sought an adoption as an adult from a friend who wasn’t much older to escape biological parents who abused and tormented her even after she came of age. The woman changed her name and moved across the country.
Van Winkle recalled another case in which an elderly woman adopted a longtime friend who became a caregiver so that person could inherit from the woman’s trust.
Greenfield attorney Sarah Wolf said there are good reasons why someone would want to be adopted when they turn 18, but she counseled caution. If a guardian sought to adopt a child at that age, the child could lose any claim to future educational benefits from his or her biological parents. Likewise, some attorneys say, adults who are adopted run the risk of forfeiting any claim to inheritance from their biological parents.
Inheritance considerations in the past have motivated some adult adoptions. Since the estate tax in Indiana was abolished last year, that’s less of a consideration than it once was, but it’s still a factor.
Indianapolis attorney Marc Matheny noted that an adult adoption is a good way to guarantee that even if a will is thrown out for any reason, the adopted child will have a right to inherit.
Matheny recalled a case in his practice that was as personal as practical. An elderly woman who never married adopted a priest who was close to her. The adoption was partly for inheritance purposes, but also because, “She always wanted a son who was a priest,” he said.•