Inheritance Rights of the Adopted: Can adopted children inherit?

As a NY estate lawyer with two decades of estate litigation experience I can say the answer is it depends.  Normally when children are given up for adoption all legal and physical ties with their natural parents and family are extinguished.  For example, if a child given up for adoption is later adopted by a stranger to the blood, non-family, the child would have no claim to the inheritance of their natural parents when they pass.  This is also known as being adopted-out of your family.

However, what most adopted-out children, and NY estate lawyers alike for that matter, fail to understand is that this is not always the case.  While it is true adopted-out children have no inheritance rights against the estates of their biological families this does not hold true for children who are adopted by certain classes under the NY estate law.

Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §117(1)(e) an adopted-out child may still claim inheritance to the estates of their biological families when adopted by either a step-parent who’s married to their birth parent, or when adopted by the child’s birth grandparent, or anyone descended from their birth grandparent.  Therefore, under the NY estate law, the rights of an adoptive child to inheritance and succession from and through either birth parent shall not terminate upon the making of the order of adoption when adopted by a member of the above classes.  This class of adoptee is known as adopted-out/adopted-in.  This is because while the child may have been adopted out of their birth family they are legally deemed to have been adopted back in for continuity purposes and legally entitled to their intestate share of inheritance.

What most NY estate lawyers are not aware of, and even some court personnel, is that when a child is adopted by their step-parent or any other descendent of their biological grandparents, they still inherit from their biological family as if there was no adoption.  As practicing NY estate lawyers, we have successfully handled many such cases on behalf of adoptees who were under the wrong impression that they had no vested rights of inheritance against their biological family’s estates when in fact they did.   Knowing the legalities between inheritance rights of adopted-out children and those who have been both adopted-out of their birth family and then adopted back in can often be the difference between inheriting millions of dollars or inheriting nothing.

Oftentimes as a NY estate lawyer dealing with these matters in Surrogate’s Court we encounter opposing counsel and even court personnel who are unfamiliar with this body of law.   In fact, adversaries are so certain that adoptees have no rights of inheritance under any circumstances we even find ourselves second guessing the NY estate law.  However, this body of NY estate law regarding inheritance rights of adoptees is longstanding and founded upon deep rooted principles of equity.  This rule was recently reaffirmed in the case of Matter of LaBelle.  Here the Court reasoned the laws of intestacy, by including these classes of adoptees as distributees, attempts to distribute the decedent’s property to persons whom the decedent would likely have chosen had he or she executed a will.

The legal theory behind this is that in cases where a child is adopted by a close family member, the Legislature has chosen not to cut off inheritance ties between the adopted-out child and their natural family that has been replaced because of the likelihood of continued contact with that family.  Simply stated, just because you were adopted by your step-parent or someone specified within your family, your inheritance rights are not severed.  Personally, as a NY estate lawyer I feel that this is one of the areas of the law that are especially fair, just and sensible.  Family dynamics can be complicated and the legislature should be sensitive to the equitableness ensuing from its rule of law.

If you or someone you love is the adoptive heir to a NY estate, you may have rights under the NY estate law.  Feel free to call an experienced NY estate lawyer at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates, at (718) 261-2444 for a free consultation.  Our Queens estate lawyers have nearly 45 years of combined NY estate law experience handling these complex NY estate cases for adoptees in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Richmond, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.

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