JANUARY 2, 2017 VOLUME 24 NUMBER 1
You probably know that it’s possible — though state laws vary quite a bit — to adopt an adult. But have you given any thought to what effect the adoption might have on inheritance rights? That’s the sort of problem that gets lawyers (and judges) excited. Two recent appellate decisions for Iowa and Illinois address similar but different adult adoption conundrums.
In Iowa, Marian (we’re just going to use first names here — no disrespect intended) had two adult children, Russell and Marcia. Marian’s sister-in-law Janice had no children. Janice intended to leave her estate to Russell, but under Iowa law that would mean that he had to pay a tax on his inheritance, because he was not her child.
In order to avoid that inheritance tax, Janice adopted her nephew Russell after he became an adult. That worked just fine, and avoided any tax — but what about Russell’s relationship with his biological mother, Marian?
When Marian died in 2014, her will divided her estate between “my children, [Russell] and [Marcia], share and share alike.” But was Russell still Marian’s child? Marcia argued that her brother was really her former brother, and his adoption by Janice effectively disinherited him from her mother’s will.
The Iowa probate court was not impressed with the argument, and neither was the Iowa Supreme Court. Though the adult adoption severed the parent/child relationship between Marian and Russell, Marian’s will specifically named her children. According to the state’s high court, that created a presumption that she meant to include Russell even though he might have been adopted by someone else. Roll v. Newhall, December 23, 2016.
Meanwhile, the Illinois courts were faced with a flip-side problem when Betty adopted her step-son Ron. You see, Ron’s mother and father were divorced when he was three, and he was raised mostly by his mother. His father remarried and Ron did spend considerable time (particularly in high school) with his father and step-mother.
When Ron was 21, his step-mother Betty’s mother died, leaving a trust that would ultimately flow to Betty’s children. A year later Betty asked Ron if he would be willing to let her adopt him. Betty’s father later modified his own will to specifically disinherit Ron, but Betty’s mother’s trust was already in place.
When Betty died fifteen years later, her mother’s trust was set to benefit her children. Was Ron a child for purposes of that trust? That was the question facing the Iowa probate court.
Over the objections of Betty’s other relatives, the probate court determined that the adult adoption was effective. Ron would receive a share of his adopted grandmother’s trust. The Illinois Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.
The key question in Ron’s story was whether the adoption was a “subterfuge.” If the other heirs could show that Betty’s adoption of Ron was solely motivated by her desire to make him a descendant for purposes of her mother’s trust, then they might be able to challenge the adoption.
The other relatives pointed out that Ron was an adult when Betty adopted him, that the timing was suspect (coming just a year after Betty’s mother’s estate was opened), that Ron didn’t even tell his biological mother about the adoption until Betty’s later death, and that Ron himself had acknowledged that Betty was motivated to adopt him for “estate reasons.” On the other hand, evidence showed that Ron had spent considerable time with Betty and his father after they were married, that he lived nearby at the time of the adoption, and that Ron and Betty had a close, coninuing relationship for over thirty years. The effectiveness of the adoption was upheld. In re: Estate and Trust of Weidner, December 20, 2016.
Would the same cases be decided the same way in Arizona? Perhaps not.
First of all, adult adoptions in Arizona are sharply limited. Arizona’s statute on the subject, ARS section 14-8101, permits adult adoptions only when the person being adopted is:
- Over age 18 but no older than 21, and
- A stepchild, niece, nephew, cousin, grandchild or (sometimes) a foster child of the person adopting.
Under the second test, either Russell or Ron could have been adopted just as they were in Iowa and Illinois. But both of them were over age 21 when adopted, so those adoptions could not have been completed in Arizona.
Assuming, though, that the adoptions were effective in Iowa, Illinois or wherever concluded, Arizona would honor the other state’s (different) rules. If adoptive parents Marian or Betty had moved to Arizona after adopting Russell or Ron, the same legal problems might have arisen.
One other state law difference that might have made the outcome in Marian and Russell’s case: nothing in the adult adoption statutes in Arizona requires that the existing parental relationship be dissolved. Russell could presumably be his aunt Janice’s son AND his mother Marian’s son at the same time. Of course, this outcome is harder to test — Arizona does not have an inheritance tax like Iowa’s, and so it is difficult to think of why the story might play out in the same way.