Can same-sex partners together adopt a child in Rhode Island?

Though the question of joint adoption by an unmarried couple is not addressed expressly by the Rhode Island statutes on adoption or by any authoritative ruling by the State Supreme Court, joint and second parent adoptions have routinely been granted at the Family Court level.  Feel free to contact GLAD for more information, or if you encounter any difficulties.  Also, with the advent of marriage and civil unions in Rhode Island, a married or civil union couple can do a step-parent adoption.

What is the difference between joint, second-parent (also known as co-parent) and single-parent adoptions?

A joint adoption is when both partners adopt a child together at the same time. A second-parent adoption is when one partner adopts the other partner’s child. A single-parent adoption is when a single individual adopts a child. All three of these are legal in Rhode Island.

What is the advantage of doing a second-parent or joint adoption?

Both joint adoptions and second parent adoptions ensure your child has two legal parents, which often provides greater comfort and security to everyone involved. Depending on your particular family situation, the law may not recognize both partners as legal parents without an adoption. In these cases, the non-legal parent needs special permission to make medical decisions for the child or attend school meetings, and is at risk of losing custody if the couple splits up.

Adoption allows a non-legal parent to become a legal parent, entitled to make decisions for the child without special authorization. It also permits the adoptive parent to automatically assume custody of the child if their partner dies. Likewise, if the adoptive parent dies, the child will have the right to inherit from them even absent a will, and may be able to collect social security survivor benefits.

Finally, if the couple separates, adoption ensures that both parents have the right to custody and visitation, and that any disputes will be decided based on what is in the best interests of the child rather than on who is the legal parent.

Do we need to do a second-parent adoption if we are married?

When a child is born into a marriage, Rhode Island law and the law of all states, presumes that both spouses are the parents of the child and both names are listed on the child’s birth certificate. However, this is only a presumption and can be challenged in court, so in the past GLAD recommended that married couples do a second-parent adoption to ensure the parentage of the non-biological parent because adoption is a court judgment creating a parent-child relationship and must be respected by other states.

Now Rhode Island couples have a second way to protect the parentage of the non-biological partner by signing a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage.

If I am a parent who has signed a VAP, do I also need to do a second parent adoption?

No. A parent who has signed a VAP should not need to do a co-parent adoption to establish parentage. A VAP establishes legal parentage under state law, is the equivalent of a judgment of parentage under state law and gives you all the rights and duties of a parent. Under federal law, an Acknowledgement of Parentage is the equivalent of a judicial decree of parentage and should be recognized in all states.

Since expanded access to acknowledgments of parentage is an emerging development, some parents might feel more comfortable also completing a second parent adoption in addition to or instead of a VAP. To understand what is best for your family, individualized legal advice is recommended.

Short of second-parent adoption, how can a family protect the interests of the child vis-à-vis their non-legal parent?

There are a number of steps that can be taken, although none offer the security of a second parent adoption.

  1. Co-parenting Agreement: A co-parenting agreement is an agreement setting out the parents’ expectations about each other’s roles and their plans in the event of separation, disability, or death. While these agreements may not always be given full effect by courts, which are bound to make custody and visitation decisions based on the child’s best interests, they are important indicators of what the couple believed was in the best interests of the child and may influence a court’s ultimate decision.
  2. Wills: The legal parent may nominate a guardian of the child upon the parent’s death (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-15.1-7). These wishes are given strong preferences by courts. Of course, if the child has another legal parent living, then that person would have priority over the nominated guardian.
  3. Power of Attorney and Temporary Guardianship: This document is signed by the parent and authorizes another person (the attorney-in-fact and temporary guardian) to make a wide variety of decisions and arrangements for the child, including matters related to school, medical care and finances.
  4. Co-guardianship: While there is no express provision in the law allowing for appointment of co-guardians, and although the practice varies to some degree across the State, some probate courts allow a parent to name the other non-legal parent as a co-guardian so that the other parent may secure medical attention for the child and act as a parent (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-15.1-5). This status is not permanent, and may be terminated by a court (R.I. Gen. Laws § 33-15-18 (“The court shall remove any…guardian…upon finding that the [guardian] has not fulfilled, or is no longer able to fulfill, the duties of the appointment as set forth by the order itself and/or the limited guardianship and guardianship law.”)).