Think about this, you were born to your mother and father. At a wee young age your mother and father separated and your mother raised you. Nothing unusual there. Say then your mother later married another man and he started to raise you as his own; while your stepfather may have always been known as a stepfather, he still loved you and treated you as his own without distinction as to his own biological children. Then at a certain point your stepfather moves to adopt you. Adoption can be a lengthy process, with a mandatory minimum three month waiting period. During that process your stepfather passes away intestate. You are not legally his child so there are no inheritance rights; so what do you do?
Perhaps you seek various government benefits that you would be entitled to if you were adopted, such as Social Security benefits if you are still a minor, benefits through the Veterans Administration, et cetera. This scenario is entirely plausible and actually happened in the case of Matter of Mazzeo, 466 N.Y.759 (A.D. 3rd Dept 1983). Mazzeo shows some of the problems that goes beyond what was outlined above, in that in Mazzeo after the necessary parties filed the adoption petition for an adult adoption, the stepmother (Rose Mazzeo, hereafter Mrs. Mazzeo) passed away intestate and her niece filed for letters of administration, claiming that under New York’s intestacy statute, Mrs. Mazzeo’s only surviving heirs were her five nieces. The stepson (Joseph Mazzeo, hereafter Mr. Mazzeo) opposed this move and claimed that he was equitably entitled to be considered the child of the deceased. The New York Appellate Court agreed with Mr. Mazzeo and found that under principles of equity, or, fundamental fairness, an adoption should be construed for purposes of considering Mr. Mazzeo as the heir to Mrs. Mazzeo.
Many states and territories have statutes or case law that enable Courts to find an equitable adoption. Even federal Courts recognize and enforce this legal principle, as found in Kuchenig v California Co., 410 F.2d 222 (5th Cir. 1969). Moreover, it is a doctrine with a long history. In fact one of the best quotes describing equitable adoption in New York case law comes from New Jersey case law from 1933, which states, in essential parts, equitable adoption will be found where there has been “full and faithful performance” but was never memorialized with a formal Judgment of adoption.
With the death of the parent, however, “equity and justice” require that there be a finding and the law and Courts treat the child as if there was an adoption and the child be entitled to the same rights of inheritance that is not disposed of by will and be treated as a natural born child. Burdick v Grimshaw, 113 NJ Eq. 591, 595 (Ch. 1933), as quoted in Matter of Riggs, 109 Misc. 2d 644 (Surrogate’s Court, 1981). No doubt it is a fact sensitive determination that a Surrogate’s Court must carefully weigh after hearing all of the evidence.
If you believe that you are entitled to an inheritance but for formal adoption proceedings memorializing this arrangement, you must speak with an experienced estate planning attorney today. Any delay could be to your prejudice.