Sometimes an idea comes at you from left-field, being something that had never occurred to you previously.
I may be wrong, but I cannot recall ever previously hearing of, or considering the idea of, adults being adopted. However that is just the idea that I came across the other day in a story in the Scottish newspaper The Herald. The story reports that a campaigner is pressing members of the Scottish Parliament to change the law to allow ‘parents’ to adopt adults.
Under the law in both Scotland and England only a child can be adopted – i.e. someone under the age of 18. However, the campaigner, who is 27 years old, wishes to be adopted by his stepfather. The circumstances behind this are that the campaigner never knew his biological father and was raised by his stepfather (and his mother) from the age of 13. His mother and stepfather were married when he was 16. Obviously very close to his stepfather, when he was in his late teens he apparently looked into the possibility of being adopted by him, only to discover that it was too late as he was over 18.
The obvious question is: what difference would it make if he were adopted? Well, apart from the emotional effect of recognising the connection between parent and child, three perhaps more ‘concrete’ reasons are given by the campaigner. Firstly, the transfer of inheritance rights on intestacy – adopted children are treated the same as biological children, and so can inherit from an adoptive parent. Secondly, “restoring an original relationship between adult adoptees and their biological family”, by which I take to mean that the child is adopted by their biological parent, having previously been adopted by someone else. The third reason is the obvious one of formalising the relationship of a stepchild and their step parent.
And despite my previous ignorance, adult adoption is something that apparently already exists in several other countries, including the US, Canada, Germany and Japan. I haven’t made any study of how it operates in those countries, although I understand that in Germany, for example, there are rules designed to prevent its misuse.
Okay, so what are my thoughts on adult adoption?
Well, as to those three reasons for adult adoption, the first one seems to me to be the most significant, certainly from a legal point of view. I understand that in Japan, for example, adult adoption is used as a way to make sure family businesses survive when there are no heirs to take over. However, two obvious points strike me: firstly, that there should be appropriate safeguards to prevent the process being abused by the adopted ‘child’, in order to gain an inheritance. Secondly, the situation could of course simply be resolved by the parent making a will in which they leave an inheritance to the child.
As to the second reason, a similar result could of course be achieved by revoking the adoption order, thus restoring the legal relationship between the child and its biological parent. Although it is extremely rare, an adoption order can be revoked. Back in 2015, for example, Mrs. Justice Pauffley revoked an adoption order more than 10 years after it was made. However, she made it quite clear that such revocation should only be granted in exceptional circumstances, as adoption is intended to be final. Whether the need to ‘restore’ a biological relationship (perhaps alongside the breakdown of the relationship between the child and its adoptive parents) would be sufficiently exceptional to warrant revocation, I could not say. Still, the possibility is there in existing law, without the need for an adult adoption.
To conclude, I’m not really sure that adult adoption is necessary, at least from a legal point of view. As we have seen, similar results can already be achieved using existing laws. On the other hand, is there any harm in it, provided there are appropriate safeguards? The answer to this may well be no, although somehow I can’t see the government (at least in Westminster) finding time for such a reform any time soon.