Adoption is a legal process for making a child a permanent member of a family other than the child's birth family. This legal process falls under the jurisdiction of a court of law in the State where the adoption occurs.
Every State maintains a court system in which different courts are designated to hear specific types of cases. That designation is what is meant by the term "jurisdiction." For example, criminal cases will be tried in a State criminal court. Adoption is a civil procedure, and at the State court level, certain civil courts are given jurisdiction over adoption cases. A person who seeks to adopt a child must file his or her petition for adoption with the appropriate court.
State courts are organized in a hierarchy of courts of original jurisdiction, which is the level at which cases are first heard, and appellate courts, which hear cases that have been appealed from lower courts. The names given to these courts vary from State to State. All adoption cases commence with a petition filed with the appropriate court of original jurisdiction.
The types of court designated as the court of original jurisdiction reflect the organization of the State court system, and the names can include:
Some other names used are equity (Maryland), chancery (Mississippi), court of common pleas (Pennsylvania), county (Nebraska), trial (Northern Mariana Islands), territorial (Virgin Islands), and court of first instance (Puerto Rico).
In some States, more than one court may have jurisdiction over adoption cases, that is, either court designated in statute may hear an adoption petition. For example, in Iowa, either the juvenile or district court has jurisdiction, while in New York, either the family court or surrogate's (probate) court has jurisdiction. Either the chancery or circuit court has jurisdiction in Tennessee, while in Texas, a district court, juvenile court, or other court having jurisdiction of a suit affecting the parent-child relationship can hear an adoption petition.
In some States, other courts may have jurisdiction over an adoption case under specific circumstances. For example, in six States (Alabama, California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Utah), the juvenile court will have jurisdiction if the child to be adopted has previously been placed under that court's supervision or if that court handled the case of termination of the parent's rights. In Nevada and New Mexico, if the child to be adopted is an Indian child, a Tribal court may have jurisdiction over the case. The trial division of the high court has jurisdiction over contested adoptions in American Samoa.
Venue refers to the geographic location of the court that will hear the case. Most States maintain courts of all types located in different counties or districts throughout the State or Territory. Petitions for adoption are filed in the type of court that has the appropriate jurisdiction at the location (or venue) that is convenient to the parties involved in the case. In many cases, there may be a residency requirement. Venue options include the county where the person seeking to adopt (petitioner) and/or the child to be adopted reside, or where the child-placing agency is located.
An attorney experienced with a State's adoption laws can assist a person seeking to adopt in drafting the adoption petition and making sure that the petition is filed with the court having the appropriate jurisdiction and venue.