As an adoptive parent, you absolutely need to know about several pivotal documents critical to the process of bringing your child home. No need to get overwhelmed: Remember, the more educated and organized you become about the documents you need, the less stressful the adoption process will be. To avoid stress, view the adoption process as a long-distance run—not a sprint. Take things step by step. In the adoption process, typically one thing must happen before another given thing can happen. Nothing is fast in adoption—and the paperwork is complicated! That’s why checklists are a great thing in the adoption process. Consider developing a checklist of everything that you and your family will need in order to bring your adopted child home. It’s one way for you to feel a bit more “in control” of the ebb and flow of documents and governmental organizations over which, most times, we as adoptive parents do not have a lot of control!

So, as the saying goes, “get your ducks in a row,” and dive into this list to learn about some of the documents you’ll need to complete the adoption process. Because domestic adoption differs quite drastically from state to state, in this article our focus is more strongly on international (also known as “intercountry”) adoption. Check with your state government for forms (such as the termination of parental rights [TPR]) and state-required processes related to domestic adoption.

1. The Dossier

The dossier (pronounced doss-ee-ay) is pretty much what Merriam-Webster says it is: “A file containing detailed records on a particular person or subject.” A dossier is required for most adoptions, be they domestic or international. Check with your specific state and agency to determine whether the dossier is needed.

As related to adoption, a dossier contains things such as the adoptive parents’ birth certificates, marriage license, financial statements, and other important papers that help the agency (and, in the case of international adoption, the country) get a representative snapshot of the parents—their physical and mental health, their financial stability, the legality of their marriage, and so forth.

So, you want specifics, right? Here’s a list of exactly what goes into a dossier, in most cases.

- Home study—typically, your social worker interviews you, and then they (or you) put together a multiple-page document (typically 5-10 pages long) stating who you are and why the social worker thinks you’ll be good parents; this must be notarized. It’s best to get three copies.

- Birth certificates for the adoptive parent(s)—these must be certified, original copies. You’ll need at least two, so, it’s best to request three, just to be safe. To obtain these, contact the capital of the state where you were born (processes may differ from state to state).

- Marriage certificate—if the adoption requires the adoptive family to be a married couple. Request three copies, just in case.

- Tax returns—the number of years required varies. Typically, returns are requested for anywhere from the past one to the past five years.

- Divorce decree—if applicable, this can be obtained from the Bureau of Vital Statistics. It’s best to get three copies, just in case.

- Police reports—some states require fingerprints, as well). Basically, the agency and/or country wants to be sure you’re not a convicted criminal. These must be notarized, and you should get at least two copies. Often, this is part of the home study (see first bulleted item above).

- Financial statement—this is typically a typed list of your assets, as well as bank account information/balances, savings, bills, and debt-to-asset ratio. There is no template or form for this; it’s created entirely by you, the adoptive parent(s).

- Letters about medical health of prospective parent(s)—this includes both physical and mental health and is usually required to be notarized.

- Previous adoptions—you’ll need to submit paperwork proving any previous legal adoptions of children in your family.

- INS approval notice—if you’re adopting a child from another country, one of your most important forms will be the I-600A. (See related section below for more details).

- Letter from your employer—this should be on company letterhead, and it simply states your position in the company, your salary, and how long you’ve worked there. This also must be notarized. It’s best to get two or three copies of this letter.

For more information on the dossier, check out this helpful Adoption.com article by Sonia Billadeau.

2. Personal Photos

Most adoption agencies and countries ask adoptive parents to send photos of themselves, individually and as a couple (if the adoption requires the adopters to be a married couple). If you have children already in your family (biological, adopted, or both), you’ll be asked to send photos of them, as well. Agencies and adoption authorities also may require a photo of your residence—not just from the outside but also photos of each room, including and especially the room that will be your child’s bedroom. Sometimes, these are included as a formal part of the dossier itself; at other times, these photos are not part of the dossier but are still required as part of the overall adoption application process.

3. Letters of Recommendation and Referral

You’ll be asked to provide reference letters from close friends and family members (perhaps even officials such as work supervisors), attesting to your qualifications to be adoptive parents.

You may also be asked to provide letters from other family members willing to step forward and take responsibility for the adopted children should something catastrophic happen to both adoptive parents. This is common when the adoptive parents are of a more advanced age. Requiring this letter doesn’t mean you won’t get approved as a “slightly older parent”; it simply means that the adoption authorities must act in the best interests of the child: They want to make sure you have a plan in place should something happen to you.

Sometimes, these letters of recommendation and referral are included as a formal part of the dossier itself. However, occasionally these letters are not part of the dossier itself but are still required as part of the overall adoption application process.

4. Form I-600A

Adopting a child from another country (which is known as “intercountry adoption”) requires a few additional steps and forms not required for those adopting domestically. To bring a child who you’ve adopted into this country, you must apply with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS, formerly known as the INS). Your first step is to download or obtain Form I600A—Application for Advance Processing of an Orphan Petition. Or, you can call (800) 870-3676 to request a copy. Check out this article on Adoption.com for some super helpful tips and recommendations to keep in mind when completing this important form. The reason for submitting this form is basically to get approval from the USCIS to adopt your child from another country. Your I600A petition approval remains valid for 18 months from the date of approval. If it expires, you must refile (and yes, there’s an “expedited” refiling procedure available!). The actual filing of the I600A is done either by your adoption agency or you. When filing, remember that you must include your approved home study and your fingerprints (USCIS Form FD-258).

5. Forms I-171H and I-797

Once the USCIS approves your I-600A, they’ll send you one of two forms: Form I-171H (Notice of Favorable Determination Concerning Application for Advance Processing of an Orphan Petition) or Form I-797 (Notice of Action).

Form I171H is best explained in this Adoption.com article:

“You should also request that notice of this approval be sent to the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country from which you plan to adopt. In a nutshell, the I-171H states that you are approved to adopt a child from the foreign country you specified way back when you completed your I-600A. A Word of Caution: Having your I-600A petition approved does not automatically guarantee that your petition for a specific child will be approved. Approval for a particular child depends upon the child’s status as an orphan according to the definition in the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and, to some extent, upon the child’s medical status. (This is yet another reason to choose an experienced, reputable international adoption agency!)”

Form I-797, according to the USCIS, is sent to an applicant “in order to communicate information related to notices of receipt, rejection, transfer, re-open, and appointment (fingerprint, biometric capture, interview, rescheduled).” See the USCIS Form I-797 web page for more information on this form.

6. Form I-600

Along with the I-171H, the USCIS will also send you Form I-600 (Petition to Classify an Orphan as an Immediate Relative)—it’s blue in color; you can’t miss it!

As the adoptive parent(s), you’ll process the I-600 only after you receive the referral for a child. (What is a “referral”?)

Remember: To process the I-600, you’ll need to submit your child’s legal documents (birth certificate, statement of abandonment from birth country, and social history), your (the adoptive parents’) birth certificate(s), your marriage certificate (for countries that require adoptive parents to be married), death certificates (if applicable), divorce decrees (if applicable), a copy of Form I-171H, and a photo of your child.

Do NOT send your child’s original legal documents to the USCIS! These are irreplaceable documents that you don’t want to risk losing. Therefore, send photocopies and don’t forget to include the USCIS form that attests you’re sending documents that are “true and unaltered.”

As part of the I-600 process, you’ll probably have to send proof of the child’s orphan status, such as birth parents’ death certificates, documentation showing that the child’s birth country has declared him or her a ward of the State, and evidence of irrevocable relinquishment to an orphanage by the birth parents.

7. Form I-864

You’ll need to complete Form I-864 (Affidavit of Support Under Section 213A of the INA) when it’s time to bring your child home, physically. This form shows that you (and, if applicable, your spouse) have sufficient resources to support your new adopted child. For complete, detailed information on this form, see this excellent article from Adoption.com.

8. Form I-864A

Form I-864A (Contract Between Sponsor and Household Member) is completed only if you are using another household member to meet the income requirements of Form I864. That household member completes this form.

9. Form N-600

If your adopted child enters the United States on an IR-3 visa and fits the USCIS definition of “orphan,” your child is a U.S. citizen automatically upon entering the United States, according to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. This basically means that the adoption was finalized in the child’s birth country.

If your child’s adoption was not finalized abroad and he or she was issued an IR-4 visa, this means that he or she needs to be adopted or readopted in the United States. Citizenship confers instantly on the day the adoption is finalized in the United States.

To document your child’s citizenship, you can apply (on the child’s behalf) for a U.S. passport from the Department of State and/or apply for a Certificate of Citizenship from the USCIS—for the latter, you as the parents must file Form N-600 (Application for Certificate of Citizenship) along with a filing fee and mandatory documentation supporting the application.

10. Form G-884

This is a form that not everyone seems to know about (even seasoned adoptive parents whose children’s adoptions were finalized years and years ago). Form G-884 (Request for the Return of Original Documents) is pretty self-explanatory based on its title: Use it to, as the USCIS says on its instructions PDF, “request the return of all original documents submitted to establish eligibility for an immigration or citizenship benefit.” When submitting this form, be sure to include supporting documentation (the instructions explain this in more detail).

The adoption process, regardless of whether it’s domestic or international, certainly is heavy on paperwork and forms, but the result is well worth all the hard work and (sometimes frustrating) piles of paperwork. Adoptive parents who now have their children home with them quickly forget all those hoops they had to jump through, and they’d do it again if they had to.

Be educated. Be organized. Know what documents you need. Use checklists. Practice patience. You’ll get there!