Could your teenage child be secretly adopted without your knowledge? If New Jersey sets the example, then the answer looks like yes.
The New Jersey horror story started out typically enough. Parents of three children got a divorce. To make the transition as easy as possible on their children, these parents agreed to custody arrangements outside of court.
The children would remain in the family home with their father. The mother moved into a home 15 minutes away and the two parents shared parenting duties and privileges as well as parents from two households can. Things went well, and the parents never needed the courts to intervene to enforce any of their arrangements.
It was the good divorce that we want and expect should our marriages fail.
A few years later, when the eldest was a young teenager, the mother remarried. The new couple began holding the children at their house. It was not a power play as much as a bid for control. The new husband came from a fatherless home. The mother was adopted. Together, they had a view of fathers as replaceable, and it would make their life so much easier to simply cut the ex-husband away.
As they worked to cut the father’s connections with his children, one time even snatching them from the lawn, the father had to resort to the courts to enforce their custody agreements. There were multiple hearings, interviews, and appeals. By 2015 the court had issued various orders upholding the shared custody plan and instructing the stepfather not to interfere with any of the father and child relationships.
Things got so bad that the judge even openly entertained the idea of awarding sole physical custody to the father so he would have more enforcement options. (As many divorced parents know, states have various laws and assumptions about equal legal custody, but in practice custody agreements mean as much as the parent with physical custody wants them to mean.)
The mother and step-father did not like this development. They did not want to abide by the custody agreements or have to appear in court when they ignored the agreements. Therefore, when the eldest daughter turned 18 the step-father used an odd adoption provision in New Jersey law and petitioned for an adult adoption in another court. It was granted.
The Adoption Loophole
The adult adoption provision is typically used for inheritance issues. For instance, prior to the legalization of same sex marriage, one member of a homosexual couple might adopt the other so they would have tax advantaged inheritance rights. It is a simple process. The adopting parent petitions for the adoption and certifies that there are no obstacles to the adoption.
Adopting a step-child is an entirely different matter and New Jersey law has provisions for step-parent adoptions. As common sense suggests, those adoptions require notice to the biological parent and a waiver of parental rights, as well as background assessments of the adopting party. The law knows — the public knows — that adoptions of children are not to be taken lightly.
In the New Jersey case, the mother and stepfather waited until the eldest girl turned 18 so they could use the adult adoption provision. The step-father did not inform the new court about the many and current restraints set to keep him from interfering with the father and daughter relationship. He simply verified there were no controversies and adopted the eldest daughter away from her father.
The father was never notified. He even continued paying child support, un-aware that legally, according to the State of New Jersey his daughter was no longer his. The next time he tried to enforce the custody arrangements the adoption rendered them meaningless.
Such is the tale told by the pleadings in the New Jersey Supreme Court where the father has asked the court to vacate the adoption of his daughter.
In addition to this new use of the adult adoption statute, the ultimate interference with the father and child relationship, and the lack of notice to the father and protections to the child, the court must also consider the implications of letting this adoption stand. Custody agreements will mean nothing if one parent can simply find someone, anyone, to adopt a child away from a biological parent. It’s a custody loophole, abduction by adoption.
According to Alice M. Plastoris, attorney on the Board of Directors of the New Jersey Association for Justice and Chair of the Matrimonial Committee, “This is not how the legislature intended for this statute to be used and the courts have cautioned against using the adult adoption provisions without notice.”
In a surprise move, the New Jersey Court denied the petition last month while agreeing to hear a related case. Another New Jersey couple’s divorce decree stated that neither parent could move the children out of state — and then the mother promptly moved the couple’s children to Utah. A parent’s ability to rely upon custody agreements is clearly in question in New Jersey. The father in the adoption case has asked for reconsideration.
If the New Jersey courts allow these events to stand, then what comfort could any divorced parent take in child custody agreements? The agreements can be ignored by legally or physically removing the children from one parent. And thus, New Jersey could set a new standard in child custody: the first parent to capture the kids wins.