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Adoption is when a child becomes the legal child of a new family. When a court makes an adoption order, the new parents are granted parental responsibility and the child’s birth parents, and anyone else with parental responsibility, lose all legal rights and responsibilities related to the child.

In a typical adoption scenario, a child who can’t be raised by his or her birth parents will become a member of a new family in the eyes of the law and take on the new family’s surname.

In England and Wales the adoption process is handled by the family court with input from the various local authorities’ children’s services departments.

Adoption agencies

If you want to adopt, you could register with an adoption agency, which can help you organise the adoption. Adoption agencies in England and Wales are either:

  • Part of a Local Authority (LA)
  • An independent Voluntary Adoption Agency (VAA)

The main difference between the two types of agency is that LA agencies have children in their care and VAA agencies do not. Both types of agency search for prospective adopters, neither type charges adoptive parents for its services within the UK, but some will charge if the parents wish to adopt a child from overseas.

If you want to adopt a child you already know – for example, a relative of yours or the child of a friend – you do not need to register with an adoption agency.

Adopting the children of a new partner

We are often asked by clients whose partners have children from a previous relationship whether it is prudent to adopt these step-children. While adoption in this situation is an obvious step to bring the new family closer together, it is important to weigh up the legal pros and cons first. Key points to bear in mind include:

  • The adopted child becomes the legal child of the adopting parent and will gain the same rights as a birth child of the new parents, including inheritance rights.
  • The adopted child’s legal ties to the previous parent are severed. This includes any legal ties to siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins from the birth parent’s family.
  • The adopted child will lose any rights to maintenance or inheritance from the previous parent.
  • The adopted child can take on the surname of the adopting parent. However, such a change can be made without adoption, providing the requisite parental permission is obtained.

Adopting a child who is a relative (a grandchild, niece or nephew)

If you want to adopt a grandchild, niece or nephew, you will need to supply references and undergo a medical. You should bear in mind that if a child is adopted by a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, the birth parent(s) will lose parental responsibility for the child. This means that if the adoptive parent dies and there is a wish for the child to return to the care of their birth parent, unless the birth parent has been appointed the child’s guardian, the birth parent will have to readopt the child or obtain a child arrangements order.

Changing the names of adopted children

Adoptive parents and their adopted child will often want to change the child’s surname to help them integrate into their new family. The adoption certificate is sufficient documentary evidence to change their last name and a deed poll change is not needed.

In some circumstances it may also be desirable to change the adopted child’s first name. For example:

  • If the first name is unusual and may cause the child to be traced by their birth parents or others with whom contact may not be wanted.
  • If there is already a child in the family with that first name.

What is the difference between adoption and being a special guardian?

Special guardianship can be an alternative to adoption, which may be more appropriate for children in certain circumstances, for example, for older children who do not want a complete legal split from their birth family. A special guardian has parental responsibility for a child but, unlike in an adoption, the birth parents retain their parental responsibility. In relation to most issues, a special guardian can use his or her parental responsibility ahead of anyone else with parental responsibility.

Unlike adoptive parents, special guardians can only change the child’s name with express court permission. Special guardianship can be a useful option for foster carers, friends or family, who otherwise do not have parental responsibility.

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