When Is a Child an Heir under New York Law?

In days gone by, legitimate heirs were the product of a legitimate marriage.   Any child born of a legitimate wife was considered to be the heir of her husband.  Hence, a woman’s virginity prior to marriage was a necessary precondition of the propertied classes, as was her fidelity during marriage.  Adultery by the wife was a crime against property for it chanced to produce an heir who was not the issue of her spouse, thereby depriving the legitimate heirs of a portion of their birthright.    Of course, a man could sow his “seed” far and wide and, unless he recognized the child as his own, the illegitimate child would never inherit from the father.  

But family construction is much more fluid these days, and the laws of New York have sought to respond to these changes.  The legal standard remains the best interest of the child, and the laws seek to protect the child’s welfare.  Let us look at a few of the more common scenarios where establishing legal paternity means that the child will also inherit from his/her father in intestacy.

 A.  Child Born of an Unwed Mother

While our society and our laws no longer impose the stigma of illegitimacy or bastardy on an innocent child, the laws governing intestacy in New York nonetheless provide the parameters for defining who is a legitimate heir.  This is necessary to protect the rights of succession of legally-recognized descendants and to arrange for the orderly transfer of property. 

Until 1997,  no formal acknowledgment was required by the father for the mother to list his name as the child’s father.   But because paternity brings with it a host of legal and financial obligations, New York State’s Public Health Law §4135 now requires that the father fill out and sign a form formally acknowledging legal paternity of the child.   The law was passed to prevent fraud.

A putative father can also petition the court for an order of filiation to establish paternity.  The court may order DNA testing in order to establish filiation.  Putative fathers are also encouraged to register with the New York State Putative Father Registry (a non-public registry) so that they can be notified should the child, for example, be put up for adoption.

With an acknowledgment of paternity, the child is vested with certain rights, including inheritance rights, rights to support until age 21 or emancipation, Social Security survivor benefits, among others.  The father also gains support obligations and rights such as the right to refuse adoption or foster care of the child, the right to consent to medical treatment for the child, and the rights of shared custody and visitation, among others.

It is worth noting here that if the putative father is under the age of 18, he does not have the legal capacity to establish paternity in this way (or in court) without legal representation.  As a minor he cannot enter into a legally binding contract.  The contract is voidable.  However, upon reaching majority the putative father can expressly ratify the contract, and the ratification brings with it all of the rights and obligations of paternity.

B. Adopted Child

Adoption was uncommon prior to the 19th century, and today remains the province of each state to govern. In New York, adopted in children may inherit from their adoptive parents but not from their biological parents, unless the biological parent specifically names the adopted out child as a beneficiary in a duly executed Will. The law also permits step-parent adoption and second parent adoption in cases of same-sex couples. Where a child has been conceived through surrogacy, a practice not permitted in New York, then the non-biological parent(s) must petition the court for paternity in the case of the father and for adoption in the case of the second  mother. 

C. A Child Born of a Marriage but Where the Father is not the Wife’s Husband

Because a child born of a legal marriage is presumptively the husband’s child, this raises special concerns for both the husband and the biological father.  As we discuss these scenarios, it is important to remember that the best interests of the child remains the legal standard.

Should the biological father wish to be declared the legal father of the child, then either the mother or the alleged father can petition the Family Court.  The petition will state that the child was not a product of the marriage, that the mother is married but not to the alleged father, and that the mother and the alleged father had sexual relations during which time the child was allegedly conceived.  The alleged father may also provide an affidavit stating these same facts and admitting paternity. 

If the non-biological father does not wish to block the challenge to paternity, then he may provide an affidavit of “no access”  in which he will swear that he had no sexual relations with his wife during the time period when the child could have been conceived.   The legal presumption for the time of conception is between 266 and 299 days from the beginning of the mother’s last menstrual period.

It is worth noting that New York public policy limits third party challenges to paternity of a child born in wedlock.  Thus  the husband has the right to block this petition if he wishes to raise the child as his own.  The court has the right to deny DNA testing if in the court’s opinion this would not be in the best interest of the child, especially if the child is no longer an infant and has been part of the family unit for some time. 

The legal principle of equitable estoppel may also prevent a husband or wife from challenging paternity several years after the birth.  Thus is particularly true where the non-biological father has established himself in the role of the father, where both husband and wife have held out the non-biological father as the father of the child, and where the child has relied upon these representations of paternity 


Because of the importance of establishing and clarifying filiation, it is important that parents take the necessary steps to ensure that their child is properly filiated so that his/her inheritance rights are secure.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, or how a revocable living trust for your digital assets can be tailored to your needs, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form. I will get back to you promptly.

Adoption and Inheritance in New York, Part 1. A Brief History of the Issue

As a young girl, I was fascinated by the stories of Anne of Green Gables (1908), Pollyana (1913), and the comic strip Little Orphan Annie (1924).  These stories of adoption spoke to me of acceptance and of intergenerational care.  What I did not realize at the time was that these stories also reflected a new trend in the history of adoption and of family construction, a shift from an emphasis on strict bloodlines for the purpose of inheritance to the acceptance of adoption to create or expand a family.  

As in other jurisdictions, adoption in New York is, strictly speaking, a creature of the law.  The law in New York concerning inheritance rights of adopted children would also change as a result of changes in society, creating a uniquely legal concept of the family through the expansion of inheritance rights to include the adopted child.  Literature and the law would walk hand in hand to bring about change.

The story of Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables represents a transitional phase in the history of adoption.  Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, sister and brother, had decided to adopt a boy to help them out on the farm because they were getting too old to take care of the chores themselves.  Orphanages in the 19th century regularly adopted out children as a form of cheap farm labor.  Through a series of mishaps, the Cuthberts received precocious Anne instead.  With her flaming red hair and freckles, Anne’s cheery disposition soon warmed the heart of Matthew and even crusty Marilla, exemplifying the more desired kind of adoption based on sentiment rather than work.  This desired kind of adoption would progressively find its way into the spirit and language of the law.

Anne’s flaming red hair is also the dominant characteristic of Little Orphan Annie.  Based upon Indiana poet Charles Whitcomb Riley’s poem Little Orphant Annie (1885) written in the Hoosier dialect,  Riley’s Annie is adopted out to be a household servant. 

Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;

But Annie also had an unusual gift:  she could spin goblin stories for the children after the evening meal, morality tales where the children are exhorted to obey their parents.  The poem focused on the beneficial moral effects of the adopted child, in contrast with real orphans who often were associated with ignorance, disorderly conduct, and poverty.

Annie would not have ridden out on an orphan train, a particularly painful part of the history of adoption in New York from 1854-1929.  The orphan train was the brainchild of New York Protestant reformer Charles Loring Brace, author of The Best Method of Disposing of Our Pauper and Vagrant Children (1859).  Alarmed at the growing number of homeless and disorderly children in New York, particularly Irish Catholic immigrant children who had arrived during the Irish Potato Famine, Brace feared that crime would increase in the city as a result.  His Children’s Aid Society placed out only boys to rural regions of America, in what was in large part a contractual arrangement.   

Riley’s Annie became the prototype for Harold Gray’s syndicated cartoon Little Orphan Annie (1924), which appeared at the height of the Progressive Movement in the United States.  The Progressives Movement in New York would make significant inroads in adoption reform in the United States. 

Massachusetts had passed the first adoption law in 1851.  Section 6 dealt with the issue of inheritance.

“A child so adopted, as aforesaid, shall be deemed, for the purposes of inheritance and succession by such child, custody of the person and right of obedience by such parent or parents by adoption, and all other legal consequences and incidents of the natural relation of parents and children, the same to all intents and purposes as if such child had been born in lawful wedlock of such parents or parent by adoption, saving only that such child shall not be deemed capable of taking property expressly limited to the heirs of the body or bodies of such petitioner or petitioners.”

If the adopting couple was childless, then the adopted child could inherit freely from the adoptive parents.  However, if the couple already had natural children, the law prohibited the adopted child from inheriting from the adoptive parents.  Under the law, adopted children were not considered to be the equals of natural children with respect to inheritance rights. 

New York began amending its adoption laws beginning in 1873.  One feature of New York’s early adoption law with respect to inheritance was a provision that allowed adopted-out children to inherit from their natural parents (In re Landers’ Estate, 100 Misc. 635, 166 N.Y.S. 1036 (Sur. Ct., Oneida Co. 1917)).  In 1963, New York amended its adoption statute Domestic Relations Law (DRL) § 117 with respect to inheritance.   For the purpose of inheritance, the amended law ended the adopted-out child’s right to inherit from the biological parents, but at the same time gave the adopted child the right to inherit from the adoptive parents.

The law was amended in 1966, giving the biological parent the right to provide a bequest to an adopted-out child by last will and testament.  For the first time, the law also addressed the issue of a child who was adopted by a step-parent, an acknowledgement that new family relationships were also being forged by remarriage.

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.  The adopted-out child may not inherit from the natural parents through a class gift in a will or a trust, or through intestacy.  However, the adopted-out child can still inherit from the biological parents if the adopted-out child is specifically named in the biological parent’s will or trust.  In the case of a class gift, the adopted-out child must be specifically named as belonging to that class.

However, the new law created particular issues with respect to step-families and with respect to inheritances from grandparents.  The law was quickly changed in 1987 to provide for inheritance rights if  (1) the child’s adoptive parent is (a) married to the child’s birth parent, (b) the child’s birth grandparent or (c) a descendant of such grandparent; and (2) the testator or creator is the child’s grandparent or a descendant of such grandparent (DRL § 117(2)(b)).  This remains the law in New York with respect to inheritance rights of adoptees.

This brief history into the inheritance rights of adopted children in New York is yet another reason as to why you should have an attorney draft your Will instead of relying on boilerplate forms that are not tailored to your unique situation. After all, no person’s estate and family situation is like any other, and your uniqueness should be reflected in the way that your Will is prepared: a Will that is specifically drafted for you. Your Will is, after all, one of the most important documents of your life and you should have the benefit of expert legal assistance in drafting it.

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.

In the next segment of this series, I will look at some specific and fascinating New York cases involving adopted-out children and inheritance rights.  I invite you to join my list of subscribers to this blog by clicking on “Sign me up!”  under Email Subscription on the left-hand side of the page so that you can receive a notification when the next installment has been published.  Thank you.