Adoption Cuts Off Automatic Inheritance From Grandmother


Aleen Russell died in Kentucky in 1996. She never got around to writing a will, but Kentucky’s law of “intestate succession” provided a simple plan for distribution of her estate. The $160,000 she left would be divided equally among her surviving children. If any child of hers had died before her, Kentucky law (like that of Arizona) provided that the deceased child’s share would be divided among his or her children.

Ms. Russell’s daughter Flossie had in fact died before her mother. In 1971 Flossie and her husband were killed in an automobile accident, leaving three orphaned children. Two of the children, Barbara and Greg, were adopted by their father’s parents. The third child, Beverly, was adopted by her mother’s sister Rosalind Tuck. In a sense, Beverly remained Ms. Russell’s granddaughter (but through her “new” mother), but Barbara and Greg were no longer her grandchildren.

Kentucky’s law of intestate succession is clear. Once an adoption is completed, the relationship between the child and his or her biological parents is completely severed. The adopted child has no right of inheritance “through” those biological parents, and so Barbara and Greg would receive nothing from their biological grandmother’s estate.

The adoption of Barbara and Greg was actually completed in Tennessee, however, and the rules in that state are different. Under Tennessee law Barbara and Greg would still be entitled to inherit from their biological grandmother’s estate.

Barbara and Greg made a novel argument to the Kentucky courts. Because the U.S. Constitution requires every state to give “full faith and credit” to the laws and rulings of every other state, they said, Kentucky should be required to treat a Tennessee adoption exactly as it would be treated in Tennessee. They also pointed out that the public policy reason for the Kentucky law (making sure that the adoption created “a new family”) shouldn’t apply in the case of an adoption by one set of grandparents after the parents’ death.

Both arguments failed. Although the Kentucky trial court upheld the right of Barbara and Greg to inherit, three levels of appellate courts ruled the other way. Kentucky’s Supreme Court ultimately struck their claim to inheritance and ordered distribution of the estate to the surviving children—with no share to go to Flossie or her children. Pyles v. Russell, February 22, 2001.

It is important to recognize that none of the Russell family’s legal problems needed to arise. If Ms. Russell had written a will, she could have decided whether to include her grandchildren or not. The intestate succession rules only kick in when there is no will.

Arizona law is like Kentucky’s provision. Barbara and Greg would not have received any part of their natural grandmother’s estate if she had died in Arizona. The result would have been different if the adoption had been by a step-parent; special rules apply in Arizona for such a circumstance (see “Sons Inherit From Father Even After Adoption By Step-Father“).

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