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Ask the County Law Librarian – Can I vacate my own adoption?



I was born in California about 40 years ago and adopted by family members at age 1. I understand that I’m not going to be able to get my original birth certificate, even though I know the names of both birth parents, where we lived at the time, etc., etc., etc.  I’m not happy, but I can deal with it.

However, the people who adopted me were abusive – emotionally and physically – and I’m tired of them being legally considered my “parents.”  Over the summer, I had my name legally changed so that my surname is once again my birth name.

Is there any legal avenue available to me to vacate my adoption?  All parents (birth and adoptive) are deceased, and there’s no expectation of inheritance or anything – I just don’t want to be legally tied to my adoptive “family” any longer.

Can I do anything?

– Jackie

Dear Jackie,

I’m sorry to hear about your situation. Unfortunately there does not appear to be an easy way for you to undo the adoptions. While there are several ways to attack a decree of adoption, most are not realistically available to the adopted person herself. If you have a positive parental figure in your life, you may want to consider an adult adoption as an alternative.

Most of the methods of vacating an adoption decree have fairly short time limits. Within six months, a natural parent can move to have the judgment vacated due to fraud, mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect (California Code of Civ. Proc. § 473). For instance, if a parent was told they were signing guardianship papers when they were really signing adoption papers, that could be considered fraud or mistake.

Any interested party can bring a court action in equity (based on principles of fairness, not on a specific statute) to vacate a decree of adoption. However, such an action must be brought within one year of the adoption (three years maximum if based on fraud), as stated in California Family Code § 9102(b). This could include an adoptee, if the timing worked, but there are no reported cases in which this has occurred in California. Grounds for this action in equity would also include fraud, mistake, inadvertence, surprise or excusable neglect. In addition, the court is required to find that vacating the adoption is in the best interests of the child (California Family Code § 9102(c)).

An adoption may be attacked by a writ of habeas corpus brought by the person who is entitled to custody of the child if the decree of adoption is void (Adoption of Alexander S. (1988) 44 Cal. 3d 857, 866–867); this would only apply, at a maximum, until the child becomes a legal adult.

One other venue to attack an adoption decree is a related action where the adoption affects the outcome, usually a probate action where the adopted child is or could be an heir. This can take place many years later. You mentioned that there are no inheritance issues in your case, so this probably would not apply.

You may want to consult an attorney who can review your specific circumstances and applicable law.

Adult adoption may be something you could look into. If you have a person or perhaps a couple in your life who you do consider positive parental figures, you and they can petition the court to grant an adult adoption. Such an adoption would sever your relationship with your adoptive parents and create a new legal parent-child relationship between you. If you are interested in this option, we have information on our website that can help you understand the steps: Adult Adoption in California. You would need to research the procedure in Virginia as information is California specific.

I hope this helps. Best of luck!

Do you have a question for the County Law Librarian? Just email sacpress@saclaw.org. If your question is selected, your answer will appear in next Thursday’s column. Even if your question isn’t selected, I will still respond within two weeks.

Coral Henning, Director @coralh & @saclawlibrarian www.saclaw.org