Saturday, July 16, 2011

How we chose to use an adoption attorney

I have gotten some questions about working with an adoption lawyer, so I thought I would share more about the factors that led us to this decision, as well as answer your questions. I had posted about some of these factors along the way, but everything is pretty jumbled and there is more information that never got published, so hopefully this will fill in the gaps.

I have to start by saying that as I began my research, I was surprised at just how many factors go into making these decisions. I was especially surprised how much where we lived effected our decisions, and how different each state's adoption laws can be. Thus, please know I am not necessarily recommending any of this, and what may be best for you in your state and county may be completely different than what I write here! Also, there are so many variables and everybody has their own priorities about what is important...

Initially, we really wanted to work with an agency. We wanted the "one stop shop" since we are completely new to all of this, as well as hand holding for both us and expectant mothers. Also, agencies just seemed "safer" financially (less variable expenses) and more predictable. However, we discovered that there are very few agencies licensed to work with prospective adoptive parents in our county, and we only found one that was "full service" and included birth mother locating, support, and counseling. All of the other agencies told me we had to "find our own birth mother" by using an adoption lawyer or facilitator.

I did a lot of networking through an adoption web board I am a member of, and found other people who lived in S.outhern C.alifornia who gave recommendations for adoption professionals. I heard a few negative things about the one "full service" agency we could have worked with, so I was pretty decided not to use them from early on. We did go to an info session hosted by this agency and liked a lot of what they presented, but it still did not feel like the right fit for us.

Another option we had was to use a national agency and adopt out of state. However, we did not like the idea of working with somebody we would never meet, and matching with a birth mother with whom it would be difficult to maintain some sort of open adoption relationship because we live across the county. Also, this keeps our adoption budget down because we do not have to pay for travel expenses, ICPC fees to transfer the adoption from one state to another, and living expenses while in another state waiting for ICPC (the length of time for this varies with each state). However, if a situation from another state falls into our lap we would be open to it, but we did not want our most likely situation to be out-of-state

I heard about our lawyer through one of my internet-but-still-local friends. I really liked her from our first phone conversation, where she talked to me for 20 minutes about her services and asked questions about us. She gave me some references, and I called all of them and really enjoyed hearing their adoption journeys. Not all of them were easy, but they had positive things to say about the lawyer. One woman told me she had three other friends in her area also use the same lawyer and they had wonderful experiences, too.

As our research continued, there seemed to be some "blessings in disguise" about the fact that we were limited in our agency options and ended up signing with a lawyer. A huge one is that, most likely, our wait time will be shorter. Of course this is impossible to predict or know for sure, but the agency we could have worked with has an average wait time of 6-18 months, and our "top choice" agency that we were not able to work with due to where we live has a 1-2 year average wait. However, our lawyer's average wait time is 6-9 months, and most of her couples adopt within a year. She is usually working with about 10 couples at a time (rather than the hundreds at the agencies), so I feel like we are getting very personalized service, and we could match faster because perhaps the situations that become available will only be possibilities for a few of those 10 couples. Also, we are able to work on our homestudy while we wait.

One drawback about working with a lawyer is the potential lack of counseling for an expectant mother. This is something that is very important to us, and was a difficult factor for us in our decision making. With a lawyer, she will be able to talk to our lawyer (and she is amazingly warm and personable, thankfully), but it is still our lawyer and she is certainly not trained as a counselor. Our lawyer said she has a network of adoption counselors that she refers expectant mothers to, but it is still not quite the same as having a social worker pursue a woman to talk to her, you know? But, with the other factors that had to go into this decision, we had to accept this part. We are hoping that, when we are matched with a birth mother, we can personally encourage her to talk to an adoption counselor (that we would pay for) and make sure she has the opportunity available as best as we can.

Another drawback about working with a lawyer is that the total cost of the adoption is more variable. However, the one agency we could have worked with had the set "agency fee" but still had variable costs like birthmother expenses, travel fees, ICPC, and additional legal fees, which are the same variable expenses with our lawyer - but I know a lot of agencies have flat fees. That said, this could also end up being a positive. If we are matched with an expectant mother who does not have many expenses, it is a straightforward legal situation with the birth father, etc., then our total cost could end up being much lower than an agency. But it is difficult that you just don't know. Also, many agencies have you pay money into a "birhtmother expenses" pot, so you are not paying money directly to the expectant mother you are matched with. If she decides to parent, you don't have to pay that fee again for your next match, but with a lawyer we would be "out" on that money.

Lastly, some people are bothered by the fact that lawyers are "for profit" and agencies can be "non-profit," but this wasn't a huge issue for us. Our lawyer charges very reasonable fees, and I just see it as her earning a professional salary, just like an agency pays their employees their salaries.

MK asked some great questions:
How do you pay? Is it something like half when you sign on and the other half once you're matched? I don't know how it works with all attorneys, but ours is providing "facilitation services" first and then "legal services" once the baby is born. I should add here that I don't believe lawyers can do the facilitation (networking to find expectant mothers considering an adoption plan) in some states, but it is legal here in C.alifornia. Anyway, we paid her about 45% of the total facilitation fee when we signed on, and we will pay the remainder of that fee when we are matched. If that match fails for any reason, we would not pay anything else for a new match.

We will pay for the legal services as we go, and they will happen around the time of the birth and in the finalization process. These will vary depending on the situation, but they are actually a pretty small amount of the total costs.

On top of these fees, we will need to pay for an agency to do our homestudy, birthmother expenses, incidentals like printing costs for our profile, and travel expenses (if applicable).

Is it more expensive, less expensive, or about the same as an agency?
To be determined. :) Because some of the fees/ expenses can be variable, I don't know for sure. But, based on her estimates, I think it will either be less expensive or about the same as the agencies I looked at. Also, another lawyer I talked to was MORE expensive, so I don't think this is necessarily true of all or most adoption attorneys, but ours is actually relatively affordable.

And do you have to show that you have a certain amount of money in a checking/savings account? We did not have to show this to our lawyer to sign with her, but her 'questionnaire' did ask our annual income. I know we will have to give financial documents for our homestudy, though.

Hope that helps, and let me know if you have any other questions!


Hillary said...

Great summary! There are so many variables in every part of the adoption process.

P.S. Love your new ticker!!!

MK said...

Thanks, I really appreciate that info! We're on the same path as you guys. Drugs didn't work for us, so it looks like we're adopting. I'm pretty excited. :)