GUATEMALA CITY - Guatemalan legislators approved legislation yesterday that tightens adoptions while allowing pending cases - mostly involving U.S. couples - to go through without meeting stricter requirements.

The new law will enable Guatemala to comply with the Hague Convention, an international agreement designed to protect adopted children from human trafficking. The Central American country sent 4,135 children to the United States last year, making it second to China as the largest source of babies for U.S. families.

Many adoptive parents, some of whom invest their life savings to bring home a Guatemalan baby, feared the changes would leave in limbo about 3,700 children already matched with prospective parents.

The U.S. State Department had pressured Guatemala to make an exception for pending adoptions in the new law, and President Oscar Berger is expected to approve that change.

Jim and Shari Ramsay of Voorhees, Camden County, expressed relief. Their adoption of an 81/2-month-old Guatemalan boy, Juan, was completed Monday.

"We are very happy to finish the process before the changes," Shari Ramsay said. The couple also adopted a Guatemalan girl in 2003.

Guatemalan adoptions currently are handled exclusively by notaries who work with birth mothers, determine if babies were surrendered willingly, hire foster mothers, and handle all the paperwork.

These notaries charge an average of $30,000 for children delivered in about nine months - record time for international adoptions. The process is so quick that one in every 100 Guatemalan children born in recent years has grown up as an adopted American.

"Starting Dec. 31, the business of adoptions is over," said lawmaker Rolando Morales, one of the law's biggest supporters.

The new law will practically eliminate the participation of notaries, while creating the National Adoption Council, an oversight agency including Guatemala's Supreme Court and foreign-relations and social-development departments.

All orphanages will have to register with the council, which will be responsible for informing birth parents of their options and establishing fees that non-Guatemalan adoptive parents pay to the government.

The law prohibits birth parents from being paid for giving a child up for adoption, and eliminates the notaries' practice of offering children for adoption before they are born. Biological parents will have to wait at least six weeks after birth before deciding whether to put the child up for adoption.

At the last minute, legislators eliminated a provision that would have prevented single people from adopting.