The situation can even differ depending on what part of the UK you live, here is a general guide.
The below is about adopting a child.
Find our information about giving up your child for adoption here
Adoption mythsIn England 65,000 children are in care and last year only 3,050 of them were adopted.
Despite many people thinking that babies (under 1 year old) are the most popular age group to be adopted, the majority of children who are placed in families are actually older than nine and many have brothers and sisters who all need to be placed together.
Here are some other adoption myths and the truth behind them.
1. Single people or same-sex couples are not eligible to adopt
This isn't true. There's a lot of controversy, especially surrounding same-sex couples adopting, but whether you're gay, straight, single, married, divorced or cohabiting - it's not a barrier.
In Northern Ireland married couples have to have been wed for at least two years before they can adopt. If a couple is in a stable relationship but not married then one of them can apply to adopt as an individual.
2. There are age limits if you want to adopt
This one does have an element of truth in it. In England and Wales there are lower age limits for adopters but there are no upper ones. You must be over 21, but if one person in a couple is the child's birth parent then this is lowered to 18. In Northern Ireland, agencies expect there not to be more than a 45-year gap between the child's age and at least one of the adoptive parents.
The only time age may make a difference is when the adoption agency is assessing if someone could cope with a child, but in these circumstances it would be the person's age as well as their health, which would be the consideration.
3. Disabled people or people who have medical conditions can't adopt
This one has an element of truth as well. Adoptive parents need the energy to cope with having a family so health does play a part. But having a disability, being overweight, smoking or having a medical condition doesn't automatically disqualify you from adopting.
4. You have to be rich or own your own home
This isn't true. Having enough space in your house for the needs of a new child is an important part of the decision making process, but people on benefits, low incomes or renting are just as eligible. And, depending on the circumstances, adopters can get financial help from the local council, and tax credits, just like any other family.
5. People with any criminal convictions are automatically banned from adopting
If you have a criminal record, you must tell the agency when applying. It will not automatically disqualify you, but, legally, anyone who has been cautioned or convicted for crimes involving children is forbidden.
6. You must have been born in the UK to adopt a child here
This isn't true. You must have been a UK resident, officially, for at least one year before you can apply. You will also need to stay in the UK for the whole assessment process and until the courts have agreed to the adoption.
Adoption laws in Scotland are slightly different than in the rest of the UK. Find out more at www.adoptionuk.org
The adoption processAlthough different councils and agencies have slightly different ways of doing things, this is a basic guide to how the process will work.
1. First contact - Once you've made the decision to adopt, contact your local agency. A list of local agencies can be found on the Adoption UK website. They will then send out an information pack and you'll be invited to attend an 'information event' to find out more about the process.
2. Home visit - A member of the Adoption Services Team will visit you at home. This is your chance to ask more detailed questions and allows the social worker to get to know you and what you can offer a child. You will be asked about why you want to adopt and what you expect.
3. Adoption application - You will now need to fill in an official adoption form. It'll ask you all about your personal circumstances including your age, your home and family background, your doctor's contact details, any criminal convictions and names of people who can vouch for you.
4. Checks process - This is when you will be asked to go for a health check-up, which all would-be adopters must agree to. Your medical history will be examined and police checks will be made. Referees will also be contacted.
5. Training course - Now you will be asked to go to a 'Preparation training course'. It's really just a chance for you to learn more about the whole adoption from people who have already adopted, birth parents, adoptees and any relevant people.
6. Home assessment - A social worker will assess how suitable you are to adopt through a number of interviews, usually six. It's not meant to be scary or intimidating. Some of the sessions will be at home and will be about your own childhood, lifestyle and background as well as your views on being a parent and again why you want to adopt.
7. The report - After a number of chats with you, the social worker will write a detailed assessment about your potential to be an adopter. You're allowed to see this report and change anything that's factually incorrect. You can also make comments on it.
8. Adoption panel - This is a group of people who are usually staff at the agency.
They consider each adoption and make recommendations, firstly, on whether you should be approved and secondly for what age group, religion, ethnicity and number of children. You can attend this discussion if you want.
9. The Decision Maker - Although the adoption panel can make recommendations, the decision maker has the final say. They're usually a very senior member of staff with a lot of childcare experience. The decision must be made within seven working days and you must be told, in writing, within another five. If you're unhappy with the decision you can appeal it.
If you're not approved you'll be told why. You can then write to the adoption agency and ask that they reconsider. You have to give your reasons as to why you think they should. Or you can apply to the Independent Review Mechanism for a review. You can also apply through another agency, where possible.
10. Placement - Once you've been approved the agency will decide on an Adoption Placement Plan. This plan will include meeting the child and adoption support. The child will come to live with you and you will share parental responsibility with the agency and the birth parents, for the time being.
11. Adoption Order - Once the child has been with you for at least ten weeks the agency will apply for an adoption order from the courts. Once processed you have full parental responsibility for the child, although the agency can give you counselling, financial support if necessary and any other services you or the child need.
This whole process should take about ten months from start to finish, although if there's any problems or you're unhappy with anything it might take longer.
Reasons why your adoption application might be rejectedIf your application is turned down it can be devastating. Here are just a selection of the reasons why applications don't get approved, although each decision is based on the individual application.
1. The social worker feels you still want a biological child and you're not ready to adopt yet. Most people never completely get over not being able to have their own children but you should work through any issues like this when you apply. If you've miscarried or lost a child, you'll need time to grieve too and adopted kids should never be 'replacements'.
2. You lied to the social worker about something serious - such as criminal convictions or drug problems.
3. Your references weren't very strong, or were negative. A bad reference might not completely ruin your chances adoption, but it could delay the decision.
4. You have a serious or life-threatening medical problem. This won't automatically disqualify you but can be a reason why you're not approved. If you're rejected for health reasons, you might want to reapply to the agency or another agency in a year or two, with a letter from your doctor.
Adopting your partner's childIf you want to adopt your partner's child, or maybe your grandchild or other relative, the process is slightly different. You'll need to tell your local council about your plans three months before you start the adoption process through the courts.
The court will ask a social worker from your local council to write a report about your partner, the child and the other birth parent, to help them to make a decision.
You can't adopt your partner's child if the child's other parent doesn't agree to it, although in some situations the court can override this.
An alternative to adoption might be that the step-parent can get parental responsibility, but only if the other birth parent agrees.
Giving your child up for adoptionSome women believe that the best thing they can do for their baby is to give it up for adoption.
This is a very difficult decision and if you are thinking about this you should contact the social services at your local council as soon as possible. There might even be staff at the maternity hospital who can help.
What information do I have to give to the social services?
If you do decide to give your baby up for adoption, the social worker will spend some time with you talking things through. At some point you'll need to give some personal information about yourself, your family and your family's health. This is so that the people who adopt your child can tell them information about you as they grow up.
Once I've decided, is that it?
Although you can prepare for the adoption before the baby's born, nothing will definitely be arranged until after the birth. Once your baby's born you'll have to talk over your decision with a social worker again and you can't sign any papers agreeing to the adoption until your child is at least six weeks old.
What happens to my baby in the mean time?
An adoption agency can take the child into care temporarily during these six weeks and then they'll arrange to place your child with the most suitable adopters.
Can I change my mind?
If, in the first six weeks you do change your mind you'll need to have another chat with your social worker about it. This is only because you will be in a very emotional state and they will need to make sure your decision is final. If everyone's happy you can ask that the baby is returned immediately.
If you change your mind after the baby has been placed with adopters but before they've made the application to the court the baby would also be immediately returned to you, as long as the everyone involved agrees.
Even if the application has been made and you've agreed to it you can still change your mind but the court will have to be sure that it's in the child's best interest to be returned to you. If you do change your mind at this point you will need to get legal advice and tell the social worker immediately.
But, if all the adoption papers have been signed, the adoption order has been made to the court and the child has been legally placed with another family, you then don't have any legal right to your child. Legally, you'll no longer be the parent. But, when the child turns 18 they'll be able to obtain details of his or her original birth certificate and adoption papers and could then trace where you are.
These are more frequently asked questions about giving your child up for adoption.
Do I need to get the father's permission?
If you're not married and his name isn't on the birth certificate, then you don't need his permission. The social worker will need to contact him though, if possible, as they will want his medical history and some basic information as well. They will want to let him know about the adoption because he might want to bring up the child himself. However, you won't ever be forced to tell them who the father is if you don't want to.
If you are married, and your husband is the father of the child or if you're not married but his name is on the birth certificate you will need to get him to agree to the adoption.
If you are married but your husband's not the father, the law still considers him to be the legal father, unless he has signed a declaration otherwise. In this case your husband will have to give permission for the adoption. The social worker will also want, if possible, some information on the actual father so they can pass it on to the adopters and the child.
What happens if he doesn't give permission?
If he doesn't give permission because he wants to bring the baby up himself, and you don't want him to, then you will need to take it to the courts. They will then decide whether adoption or a life with the father is likely to be best for the child in the long term.
Will I be able to choose the family my child is placed with?
You can say what sort of family you would like your child to be placed with. For example, you can ask that your child be placed with a family where there are other children. You can also ask that your child is brought up in a certain religion or culture. The best interests of the child are always put first, but your wishes will be taken into account.
What sort of family will my child be placed in?
Families that adopt children go through very thorough checks to make sure that they're the right sort of people to look after your child. Agencies working with the family build up a full profile of what they're like and what kind of upbringing they can offer. Before any child is placed with a family, social services have to be certain that they can meet your child's needs and they will try to match your child with a family that suits them best.
Advice for relativesIt can be a really hard time watching your grandchild or relative being given up for adoption.
It doesn't necessarily mean goodbye though. If you want to maintain contact with them your contact rights will be set around your individual circumstances. You don't have to do it directly either, you can get support groups like After Adoption to help mediate with the adoptive parents and try to set up an informal agreement. Your doctor can be part of any contact plans too.
The Grandparents Plus has useful factsheets about adoption and other contact issues.