Why Are Queer Parents Still Paying for Second-Parent Adoption?
When I was seven months pregnant, my wife and I found ourselves a lawyer. Not because we were having legal troubles. We just wanted to make sure that my wife would be seen, in the eyes of the law, as our child's mom.
If we'd been a heterosexual couple, this wouldn't be a concern-even if my baby had been conceived with a sperm donor, thus making my hypothetical male partner just as biologically unrelated to our baby as my current female partner is. But since we're gay, we had to get all our ducks in a row ahead of time. This meant wading through a veritable marshland of paperwork and, of course, it shelling out a few grand on filing fees, lawyer fees, and even a "home study" wherein a social worker came by to ask us questions and check if we were fit to be our own child's parents.
Second-parent adoption, also known as co-parent adoption, confirmative adoption, or step-parent adoption, is intrusive and expensive. While it isn't legally necessary-no judge or legal statute can say that you are or aren't a parent in an emotional way-it is a highly recommended form of legal protection. That is, if you want to have any custody rights over the child(ren) you're raising.
Without the adoption papers, my wife wouldn't be able to travel with our kid, authorize medical treatment, pick him up for daycare without my consent, or do anything else that someone with parental rights can do. If, one day, we were to split up, she would have no legal avenue through which to maintain contact with the child she'd raised from infancy. While this isn't true in every state, it's true in many, and it's true in countries all around the world.
How expensive is it, though? It turns out that the number depends a lot on where you live. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the costs range from $1,000 to $3,000, but with laws that differ from state to state it can actually cost much more or much less. Below is a breakdown of some specifics, region by region.
The Tri-State Area
New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut are similar when it comes to co-parent adoption processes, but not identical. Victoria Ferrara, an attorney in Connecticut who has been working with LGBTQ+ families for 35 years, spoke to me about costs in Fairfield County and across the state. Before marriage equality was made legal in every state in 2015, Ferrara worked with queer families on setting up powersof attorney, cohabitation agreements, wills, and more. According to Ferrara, most CT-based firms will charge a flat fee of approximately $2500, and the court filing fee is $350. Connecticut does require a home study, which can cost anywhere between $500 and $1000, but this state often waives the home study requirement for second-parent adoption.
In New York and New Jersey the costs are similar, but the legal processes are more involved. A home study is always required, and the non-biologically related parent has to be fingerprinted as well. Lawyers in New York and New Jersey quoted flat fees ranging between $1500 and $3000, or hourly rates of approximately $300. The filing fees in New York and New Jersey are $325 and $175, respectively.
Maryland and Washington D.C.
Things are a little pricier in the Maryland and D.C. area. When I spoke to Meryl Rosenberg, an experienced family law attorney with offices in Potomac, MD, she said that attorney fees for second-parent adoption run between $2500 and $3500, plus a filing fee of $165.
This area is, of course, much larger, which is why there are widely varying laws and costs. I spoke with Sabrina Cronin, an acclaimed attorney practicing in Michigan and Illinois, who shed a great deal of light onto how things work (and how much they cost) in the middle of the country. Filing fees range from $89 in Illinois or $185 in Michigan to $283 in Missouri. According to Cronin, most attorneys in the Midwestern U.S. will charge a flat fee of $2000 to $3000, but some cases are more complex than others.
"A second-parent adoption cannot take place until the biological parent's rights have been terminated," Cronin said, explaining that the complexity of the relationship between all contributors to the child's conception dictates how complicated, and therefore expensive, the adoption process will be.
The Southern United States is a huge swath of land, and the filing fees, legal requirements, and costs vary here as well. In Florida, for example, this process is known as step-parent adoption and the filing fees alone are, on average, $415. I spoke with Matthew Dolman, who practices law with Sibley Dolman Gipe in Florida and Texas about costs and processes. According to Dolman, the cost "ranges widely, anywhere from $250 up to about $3000."
Dolman also stated that "the most expensive process in a second-parent adoption is usually the home study. That can run up to $2000," and that some states require for the adoptive parents to pay for all documents to be notarized as well. "In short," said Dolman, "states like Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, all require an extensive and rather costly adoption process, even for second-parent adoptions."
The West Coast
Things seem to be a little more streamlined (and less expensive) in the Golden State. According to Amira Hasenbush, "a married lesbian couple [in the state of California] who is looking to do a second-parent adoption to confirm the parentage rights of the non-bio or non-gestational parent could do a streamlined process. The filing fee for that is $160 in Los Angeles County and $20 in most other counties."
With legal fees around $1500 and no home study requirement, California makes things pretty easy on queer couples looking to secure their parental status. Hasenbush even put together a helpful flow chart detailing the second-parent adoption processes in California.
In Washington State, for example, things are more complicated. A home study is required, and will detail, "the home environment, family life, health, facilities, and resources of the prospective adoptive parent, as well as the physical and mental condition of the child," according to Legal Voice, as well as "review[ing] the criminal record of the prospective adoptive parent."
When the Supreme Court ruled on Obergefell v. Hodges, the right to marriage became law across the United States, and many LGBTQ+ couples began to feel more secure in our rights. I am one of those couples. My wife and I married the summer after the SCOTUS ruling; the decision of the justices was very present as we said our vows. While we do now have more, and increasingly equal, standing on a federal level, it's important that we don't become complacent. As the Supreme Court tilts to the right, key rulings (such as Roe v. Wade) are being called into question. As long as these rights aren't legislated by our lawmakers, they can be overturned at any time.
Securing our parental rights via a binding legal adoption process is crucial, and it's important to be prepared for the costs that come with it - both financial and emotional. The good news is that there are resources available to parents who lack sufficient funds for the expense, and there are supportive, knowledgeable attorneys in every state who want to help.
Every professional I spoke to described helping parents obtain their custody rights as joyous, and it really is. With the right preparation, and our eyes wide open, we can have the security we deserve as parents. Maybe, hopefully, the next generation of queer parents won't even have this cost. Instead they'll bring their bundle of joy home and know that, regardless of sexual orientation or gender, they have every legal right to be the family they are.