How Adoption Affects Inheritance Rights

Last Tuesday, the Missouri Supreme Court handed down its decision in In Re Brockmire (Mo., 2014), a case involving a dispute over whether a grandchild could inherit from her biological grandfather when the grandchild’s mother was 1) still living, and 2) adopted by her stepfather before the grandfather died. The Court held that the grandchild could not inherit under those circumstances.

The decedent, Lonnie (note 1) died without a will, leaving his brother Ronald, his biological daughter, Sherri, and Sherri’s biological daughter, Bella. Sherri had been adopted as an adult by her stepfather before Lonnie died. Sherri requested that part of the estate be distributed to Bella, the decedent’s brother objected, and that’s how the dispute got going.

So why did the Court decide that Bella wasn’t entitled to a distribution?

First, Sherri’s adoption made her no longer Lonnie’s child, but rather the child of her stepfather. Under Section 453.090 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri, “all legal relationships and all rights and duties between such child and his natural parents…shall cease and determine.” (note 2) Additionally, Section 474.060 explains that “for the purposes of intestate succession” (that is, passing property at death when there is no will), an adoptee is a child of his or her adoptive parent and not his or her natural parent. So, once Sherri was adopted by her stepfather, her link as a child to Lonnie, and the rights and responsibilities springing from that, were severed. When she was adopted, Sherri ceased becoming a child of Lonnie’s and began being a child of her stepfather.

Second, Bella’s rights under intestate succession flow through Sherri, and since Sherri was no longer Lonnie’s child, Bella could not inherit from him either. Section 474.010 (regular readers will remember that this is the section handling intestate succession that we discussed in “What If I Die Without a Will?“) says that if a person dies without a surviving spouse, the property goes first “to the decedent’s children, or their descendants.” Without the adoption, Sherri would be among Lonnie’s children, and Bella would be a descendant (although Bella still wouldn’t inherit anything, because Sherri is still alive). The adoption severed this link, and therefore Bella is not the descendant of one of Lonnie’s children.

Adoption, then, moves the adopted children out of their natural families and into their adopted families, where the children are treated just as if they were natural children of their adoptive families. An adoptee is not entitled to an inheritance from their natural family, because adoption severs the link between the adoptee and his or her natural family.

Photo credit: Tomasz Steifer, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Family_tree_test1.jpg, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

note 1: I don’t mean to bring attention to these folks by using their names, but I think it is easier to refer to everyone by their first names rather than “the grandfather” or “the granddaughter” over and over. I got the names from the Court’s decision.

note 2: The “…” part is an exception to that rule which reads: “(other than a natural parent who joins in the petition for adoption as provided in section 453.010).” I removed it for ease of reading.

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