Authenticating Legal Documents from Other Countries for Use in the United States

Imagine Joe comes to your office. While living in Germany, Joe and his wife formally adopted, George, an orphan. For this example, the adoption goes through smoothly in Germany. He wants your assistance in convincing government agencies in the United States to recognize the child’s documents, specifically his birth certificate, the adoption order, and the child’s school records.

This article explains how international legal documents in family law cases are authenticated for use in the United States and further explains how court orders and legal documents issued by a U.S. court or government agency are authenticated for use abroad.

The Apostille

An Apostille authenticates a legal documents issued by country that has signed the Hague Convention (see background below). The country or state within that country, that issued the legal document, authenticates signatures and verifies the seal on the document.

Legal Authority

The Hague Legalization Convention of 5 October 1961 simplified the process of authenticating foreign legal documents including all the documents Joe asked you about. The same process applies when you want to use U.S. legal documents in other countries that have signed the Hague Convention. The United States is a party to the treaty. The authentication process is similar to courts issuing certified copies of court orders. This process reduces the likelihood of fraud and allows the international community to function effectively. Before the Hague Convention, there was no uniform procedure for authenticating legal documents for use in other countries. The Convention improved the process.

Getting the Ball Rolling

First, you must determine whether country that issued the documents Joe asked you about signed the Hague Legalization Convention. Countries that have signed the Hague Convention are treated differently than countries that have not signed the Hague Convention. For countries that have not signed the Hague Convention, the U.S. Department of State handles the authentication process for a fee. It turns out that Germany signed the Hague Convention. So the Hague Convention tells you what must be done.

To authenticate the child’s birth certificate, his school records, and the adoption order issued in Germany, a party to the Hague Convention, you must request an Apostille from Germany. The Hague Convention’s website lists the contact information and competent authorities for obtaining an Apostille from any country that has signed the Hague Convention, including Germany. The competent authorities and contact information for Hague Convention countries can be found on the Hague Convention’s website listed in the references to this article.

On the other hand, legal documents issued by countries that have not signed the Hague Convention, like Kenya, must be authenticated by the U.S. Consular. The Apostille does not guarantee the authenticity of the document, but rather it goes over the seal of the foreign country.

Why it Matters

If you understand the ways these rules work, you may be able to help Joe avoid the frustration of having courts, schools, and other government agencies reject the child’s legal documents. However, it is best to ask the agency if an Apostille will be necessary. Getting an Apostille can be a complicated process due to language barriers and differences in time zones. The documents may also have to be translated into English.

As a starting point, contact the U.S. Embassy of the country that issued the document and find out if the Embassy can assist. You should also be prepared to pay a fee for the cost of the Apostille. For non-Hague Convention countries, the U.S. State Department will charge a fee to authenticate the foreign legal document.

References: Hague Legalization Convention.


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About the Author

James L. Harris-Chappell is a captain in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. He is admitted to practice law in the State of New Jersey, the State of Maryland, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, and under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

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