Adoption and Inheritance, Part 4: The Million-Dollar Issue

It is not a rare occurrence for a step-parent to adopt  the child of his or her spouse.   The adoption is usually the result of a desire to create a strong family unit where a second marriage has occurred.  In the case of the adoption of Lloyd Dudley Seaman, however, his adoption by his step-father would lead to a ground-breaking New York Court of Appeals case that would define inheritance rights by the issue (children) of children adopted by their step-parent.

Lloyd Dudley Seaman’s father, Lloyd I. Seaman, married twice.  With his first wife Gladys, he had a son Lloyd Dudley.  After he and Gladys divorced, he married Mary with whom he had a daughter Roberta.  Gladys also remarried, and subsequently her new husband adopted Lloyd Dudley.  Lloyd Dudley later had a daughter Charlotte, while Roberta had no children.  Lloyd Dudley predeceased his half-sister Roberta.  In New York, half-blood relatives are considered whole blood relatives for the purposes of succession (EPTL § 4-1.1(7)(b):  For all purposes of this section, decedent’s relatives of the half blood shall be treated as if they were relatives of the whole blood.).

When Roberta passed away leaving behind an estate valued at close to $1 million,  the Surrogate’s Court had to determine whether Charlotte could inherit from her aunt since her father had been adopted by his step-father.  In New York, the child (issue) only possesses those inheritance rights that her adopted out parent possessed.  Adoption in New York is a creature of statute under the Domestic Relations Law (DRL).  The Surrogate reasoned that Charlotte could not inherit from Roberta because neither the 1986 Law Revision Commission recommendations nor the State Legislature that enacted those recommendations into law provided for the descendants or issue of adopted out children.  Charlotte appealed the decision to the Appellate Division Second Department, which agreed with the decision below.  Charlotte then appealed to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

In Matter of Seaman, 576 N.Y.S.2d 838 (1991), the Court of Appeals would extend the rights of children whose parent had been adopted by a step-parent.  Since the inheritance rights of the issue of adopted out children are dependent upon their parent’s inheritance rights, the court had to do a textual and historical analysis of the statutory language to reach its decision.  As a result, this case presents us with some rich background in New York adoption history.  It is also instructive because the court relied as much on what was left unsaid by the Legislature, extracting from the silence an implicit reference to prior rights

Beginning in 1887, New York amended its adoption law with respect to inheritance rights, granting adopted children and their heirs inheritance rights from their adoptive parents while not severing their rights to inherit from their natural parents (for a very good historical analysis, see Anne Wiseman French’s article When Blood Isn’t Thicker Than Water: The Inheritance Rights of Adopted-out Children in New York, 53 Brooklyn L Rev 1007, 1011-1012 [1988]).  This was not a legislative oversight because in 1896 the Legislature affirmed its initial position when it once more amended the statute to read that the “rights of inheritance and succession from his natural parents remain unaffected by such adoption” (L 1896, ch 272, § 64).  

This version of the law remained in effect until 1963 when the Legislature terminated the inheritance rights of the adopted out child with respect to its biological parents.  It did, however, permit an exception for step-parent adoption where the custodial natural parent consented to the adoption.  In 1986, as a result of a Court of Appeals decision in In re Best, 66 N.Y.2d 151 (1985), the law was amended to state that the adopted-out child was deemed a “stranger” with respect to the biological parents.  A year later, the Legislature restored the adopted child’s limited rights in intestacy, now codified as DRL § 117(1)(e).

The issue before the Court of Appeals in Matter of Seaman was one of statutory construction because the statutes control the inheritance rights of adopted out children. Was it deliberate on the part of the Legislature to omit mention of the inheritance rights of the descendants of adopted out children in the 1987 amendment, or was it merely an oversight? If a mere oversight, then what were the rights of succession for these descendants?

The court relied heavily on the statutory language of  DRL § 117(1)(e)(1) in its decision: “the decedent is the adoptive child’s birth grandparent or is a descendant of such grandparent.”  The court found that it had direct applicability with respect to Lloyd Dudley and Roberta since they shared a common grandparent.  The court then reasoned that in the 1987 amendment the Legislature had impliedly granted the inheritance rights to the issue of the adopted out child to the same degree that these had been restored to the adopted out child.   Since the Legislature had in the past been explicit in its directive regarding the inheritance rights of descendants, the court reasoned that the Legislature’s silence on this point in the latest amendment was to be understood as a tacit affirmation of its prior stance, namely that inheritance rights of descendants of adopted children are contingent upon their parent’s rights to inherit from their natural family.

Furthermore, the court distinguished between two types of adoptions, one where the child is adopted out to strangers and the other where the child is adopted by the biological parent’s second spouse.  In the first instance, several policy concerns motivate the severance of ties between the adopted out child and the biological family, including the need for confidentiality in order to permit the full assimilation of the child into the adoptive family.  Such policy concerns are of no import in the second type of adoption, a kind of intra-family adoption that results from the divorce of one parent.  The step-parent is adopting with the permission of the biological parent, and the natural parent is not relinquishing any rights to the child.  The adoption is undertaken because of a desire to blend fully the new family.

The Court of Appeals thus found in Charlotte’s favor, permitting her to inherit from her father’s step-sister Roberta Seaman.  In so doing, the court acknowledged the reality of blended families that come into existence following a divorce and supported such intra-family adoptions by granting inheritance rights to the descendants of these children.

Matter of Seaman also serves to illustrate an important point about the need to review your Will and estate plan on a yearly basis with your attorney.  Things in your life will surely change from year to year, and it is a good practice to get in the habit of talking through those changes with your attorney.  Your attorney will be able to advise you as to any impact on your estate plan.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form.   I will get back to you promptly.

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