Circumstances when Adoptions can be Overturned

To overturn or nullify an adoption basically means to undo it, to take the child back out of the custody of the adoptive parents and return him or her to the birth parents.

There is a very strong presumption against doing this.  Courts strongly prefer that once an adoption is finalized, it remain permanently in place.  But there are circumstances in which courts believe that, in the best interests of the child, nullifying the adoption is the lesser of the evils.

Certainly an adoption could be overturned if the adoptive parents are guilty of some sort of gross abuse or neglect.  If there is a significant allegation of that kind, the child would be placed in a foster home or a group home while the matter is investigated.  If the adoptive parents are found to be unfit, then a court could rule in favor of a petitioner seeking to nullify the adoption, thus stripping the adoptive parents of their parental rights.

The most common party that seeks to overturn an adoption is the birth mother.  The grounds are usually that the birth mother now is in a position to care for the child and be a responsible parent.  It may be a health problem has been resolved, her financial situation is much improved, she is no longer incarcerated, she has gotten off drugs, etc., but whatever compelled her to give up her child for adoption has changed.

Even if a court is convinced that the birth mother has indeed turned her life around and is now able to care for her child responsibly, it will still rarely nullify the adoption in this kind of case.  It’s unfortunate, but the turnaround is simply too late.  Again, courts are very reluctant to introduce additional instability and uncertainty into the already difficult and sometimes traumatic circumstances of adoption.  The child—and the adoptive parents for that matter—are entitled to rely on the adoption being permanent, so they can make a life together without wondering when the birth mother might come back to reclaim the child.

The best chance the birth mother has of prevailing is if the adoptive parents join her in telling the court that the child would be better off back with her.  For example, say a mother was unable to care for her child, and her brother and his wife adopted the child, then years later she’s back on her feet and all concerned—the birth mother, the brother and his wife, the child—agree that she should regain parental rights.

But even here it would be far from automatic.  The court would still examine the circumstances very carefully and need to be convinced that granting the petition to nullify the adoption would be in the best interests of the child.

The other approach the birth mother could take would be to claim that her initial consent to the adoption was never valid, because it was made under the influence of fraud or duress.  There would be a high standard of proof here too, though.  An adoption is a long process.  The court would need to be convinced that at no point in that entire process was the birth mother sufficiently free of fraud and duress to make a legally binding decision.  So it would be extraordinary for the birth mother to prevail on these grounds.

There also have been cases where a birth father has materialized after the fact to attempt to nullify an adoption, claiming that he was not informed of the child’s existence until after the adoption was final, and he never voluntarily relinquished any parental rights.  Precisely to reduce the risk of a situation like this, part of the adoption process is to try to locate and identify both biological parents.  So these circumstances would be quite uncommon.  But the birth father has a realistic chance of prevailing in a case like this, because courts prefer a child be under the custody of a biological parent if the person is a fit parent and never knowingly relinquished their parental rights.

Another set of circumstances that could lead to the nullification of an adoption—though again only rarely—would be if the adoptive parents themselves petition for nullification on the grounds that their relationship with the child has gotten so irrevocably bad that they have given up hope, and the child would be better off elsewhere.  The court would urge them as strongly as possible to find some way of working it out among themselves, but in extreme circumstances could accede to the request and return the child to the system to await another adoption.  (Even if the petition is granted, the adoptive parents would remain financially responsible for the child unless and until the child is indeed adopted into another family.)

Occasionally an adult adoptee will seek to have an adoption overturned due to a badly deteriorated relationship with the adoptive parents.  While it may seem to be a purely symbolic thing even if the court grants the petition, since as an adult the person is no longer under the authority of the adoptive parents, sometimes it is motivated by practical considerations, such as the opportunity to inherit from the biological parents.

These are some of the circumstances under which it is at least possible that an adoption will be overturned.  But overturning an adoption on any grounds remains difficult and infrequent.


Ken LaMance, “Can An Adoption Be Reversed After it Has Been Finalized?” Legal Match.

Annette Stierwalt, “How to Get Your Baby Back After Adoption.” Howcast.

James Withers, “How Can an Adoption Be Made Null & Void?” eHow.

“Adoption annulment or revocation.” Law Guru Answers.