New Jersey is known nationally as an “adoption friendly” state. Families from all over the country come to New Jersey adoption agencies to place and adopt their children in this state. Why? New Jersey statutes, case law, and public policy all favor adoption and the best interests of the child, which is the standard by which New Jersey courts must base adoption decisions. New Jersey laws strive to promote finality of family arrangements for the child. The following are some frequently asked questions and answers about adoption based on New Jersey adoption law:
• Who can adopt a child?
In New Jersey, married couples are not the only ones who can adopt. Single adults, as well as same sex couples, may also adopt. There are no restrictions on who may adopt in New Jersey based upon gender, marital status, or sexual orientation. A married person cannot adopt a child alone unless the other spouse consents or is noticed and does not object.
• What is an “open” adoption and are those arrangements enforceable in New Jersey?
An open adoption is one in which there is some level of contact between the adoptive parents and the biological parents, both before and following the adoption The level of contact varies from case to case. A typical arrangement might involve the biological parents sending pictures and letters on regular intervals or, in some cases, even having visits with the child. Ultimately, the biological and adoptive parents reach an agreement on the nature, type, and frequency of contact with which they are comfortable. Currently, open adoptions are not recognized in this state. Therefore, while such arrangements are often made between adopting parents and birth parents, courts in New Jersey cannot enforce open adoption arrangements.
• What is a “surrender of parental rights?” Can a birth parent change her/his mind after signing one?
A surrender of parental rights is a signed consent to place a child for adoption and surrender of all parental rights by a biological parent. It can only be taken by an adoption agency, approved by the state, at least 72 hours after the birth of the child, or by a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey. Once a valid agency surrender has been signed, it is irrevocable. There is no further waiting period during which the surrendering, biological parent can change her or his mind. A biological parent can only contest a surrender in court if he/she is able to prove that it was obtained by fraud, duress or misrepresentation on the part of the adoption agency in taking the surrender.
• Must a birth-mother who is placing a child for adoption name or identify the birth-father?
No. A birth-mother wishing to place a child for adoption in New Jersey is not required to name or identify the birth-father. If a birth-mother refuses to name the birth-father and he cannot be identified, the adoption will proceed without notice to him.
• What if the birth-father is identified?
If any identifying information has been provided about the birth-father, the agency (or the attorney for the adoptive parents, if it is a private placement) must attempt to undertake a diligent inquiry to notify him of the potential adoption. However, a birth-father who is noticed of a potential adoption is charged with the responsibility to assert his parental rights or he may lose his ability to participate in or contest the adoption. If he does not either file for a paternity determination or seek to amend the birth certificate to add his name as the father within 120 days of the date of birth of the child, he will not be entitled to notice of the adoption proceedings.
• Who can contest an adoption?
A biological parent who has not signed a valid agency surrender can contest an adoption, but a birth father will only receive notice of the adoption proceedings if, within 120 days of the date of birth of the child he has acknowledged paternity by amending the birth certificate to add his name or has made an application to the court to assert his parental rights. In certain circumstances, a guardian or relative of the child may file an objection to the adoption, if that person has provided primary care and supervision for the child for six months or half of the child’s life, whichever is less, during the last two years. Under current New Jersey law, a birth-parent who is contesting an adoption is entitled to legal counsel, potentially pro bono (free of charge), because of the significant, constitutional rights that are at stake in an adoption proceeding.
It is of the utmost importance to make sure any adoption agency you are working with is licensed, state approved and in good standing. If you are adopting internationally, you should know whether the agency you are working with is Hague accredited. Private placement (non-agency) adoptions are permitted in New Jersey as well, but different legal standards apply for their finalization. An attorney’s role in New Jersey really does not begin until after a child has been placed for adoption, at which time certain statutory requirements and timelines must be met before the adoption complaint can be filed. These requirements differ depending upon the type of adoption and the nature of the placement.
When choosing an adoption attorney, you should assure that your attorney is experienced in adoptions and fully familiar with the laws and requirements to make the finalization of your adoption as seamless and joyful as possible.