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Adult adoption - should it be legal in the UK?

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Adopting an adult is somewhat of an alien concept in the UK and rarely considered. Only children under the age of 18 can be adopted in the UK when both birth parents have provided their consent. Several other notable countries already allow adult adoption, including the United States of America, Germany, and Japan, raising the question: is the UK’s approach to this issue out of date in the modern world?

One of the most common reasons for adult adoption is inheritance purposes, especially in Japan, where it is used to ensure family businesses continue even when there are no heirs. Surprisingly, 98% of all adoptions in Japan are adult men between the ages of 20 to 30. The vast majority of these adoptions are CEOs adopting their chosen successor. For example, ‘Suzuki’ is currently run by Osamu Suzuki, who is astonishingly the fourth adopted ‘son’ to run the ‘family business’. I do not believe that this would be accepted as a reason to legalise adult adoption in the UK, as, from a British perspective, there would be no meaningful parent and child relationship, which should be the basis of any adoption. It is hard to imagine the CEO of a British company adopting an employee in order for the adoptee to take over the business.

Another common reason for adult adoption is to formalise a parent and stepchild’s relationship. Realistically, 42% of marriages in the UK result in divorce. This reflects how the traditional nuclear family is becoming less dominant  with step relationships becoming more and more common. In America, all 50 states allow and promote adult adoption. The fact that the biological parents do not have to agree is a great starting point to breaking down this barrier and ensuring that an adult can be adopted, if of course the adopter and adoptee both consent. Objection to adoption is often seen when the biological parents no longer see eye to eye and one of them ultimately does not like the other’s new partner. For example, if the biological father does not want his child to be adopted by their stepfather regardless of the quality of relationship they may have with their child, the child and stepfather can simply wait until the child turns 18 to formalise their relationship. Therefore, this would help to overcome petty objections.

On the other hand, adoption would also be of great benefit for adopted children who find their birth parents and develop a strong relationship with them later on in life. This would allow them to be adopted and formally acknowledged by their birth parents. Adult adoption might also be appropriate if the adoptee is disabled and wants a person they are close with to become their ‘parent’, who would be responsible for making decisions surrounding their life and care.

If the UK is to consider changing the law on adult adoption, it is vital to learn from the mistakes of other countries which have already taken the step and safeguard our approach to it. For example: at age 75, the celebrity heiress Doris Duke adopted her best friend at the time, 35-year-old Chandi Heffner. Duke died only 2 years later without naming Heffner in her Will but Heffner successfully contested it for $65 million on the basis that she was her legal daughter. This, unsurprisingly, caused major issues for her estate and clearly went against the deceased’s wishes in her Will, causing great controversy.

Another issue to note is the fact that adult adoption has been exploited in America, with same sex couples formalising their relationship as parent and child to gain more rights over each other. However, after the legalisation of same sex marriages in 2015, this is no longer a problem and would not be either in the UK.

Overall, there are certainly benefits to adopting adults, principally to acknowledge the significance of step relationships and to allow an adoption without the consent of the biological parents. However, if the UK does decide to reform the adoption laws, they need to do so with great caution, to ensure that the appropriate safeguards are in place to avoid any of the exploitation of the law that has been seen overseas.

It is safe to say that the government is incredibly busy at the minute with Brexit on the horizon, meaning that adoption laws are very much at the back of their minds. But if the government were to examine the adoption laws in the future, it is likely to spark some very interesting debates.

If you have any questions about adoption including adult adoption, please contact someone in our Family Team

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