Inheritance rights of the adopted? Estate of Joan Crawford

Inheritance Rights of the adopted?  Estate of Joan Crawford

Adoptions happen at various times, by various individuals and for various reasons.  For example, pursuant to the NY estate law when a child is adopted by non-members of their family the child is considered adopted-out.  However, if the adopted out child is adopted by a biological grandparent or any descendent of their biological grandparent they are considered adopted out and adopted back into their biological family for NY inheritance purposes.  Furthermore, if a child’s biological parent remarries for any reason and that child is then adopted by their parent’s new spouse, also known as their step parent, that child is also deemed adopted back into their biological family for NY inheritance purposes.

Why does this matter?  Pursuant to Domestic Relations Law §117, ordinarily when children are given up for adoption their right to inherit from NY estates of their natural relatives, biological, are terminated and their new rights to inherit from their adoptive families is created.  However pursuant to NY estate law, if the adoption is considered intrafamily as stated above, the adoptee can still inherit from their biological relatives as if they were never adopted.  This is a little known exception to Domestic Relations Law §117 and unknown to even the most experienced of NY estate lawyers.  Most adoptees mistakenly believe that just because they were adopted their bloodline for NY inheritance purposes is extinguished but this is not always the case. 

In these instances of intra familial adoptions NY estate lawyers petitioned the Legislature to not cut off inheritance ties between such adoptees as their likelihood of continued contact with their biological relatives is strong.  As such, the intent of the NY estate law is to preserve the adopted child’s entitlement to inherit from their natural birth relationships.  Additionally, the inheritance rights of adopted children are absolute pursuant to EPTL 4-1.1 of the NY estate law and cannot be rebutted by a showing that the decedent had little or no contact with the adopted child. 

On the other hand when children are adopted out of a family in NY their right to inherit from their natural birth relatives is extinguished and their new right to inherit from adoptive relatives begins. As such the adopted out child now has all the inheritance rights of a biological child within their new adopted family.  These rights include the right to intestacy, inherit where there is no will, as well as the standing to object to the probate of any NY will that excludes them. Therefore, unless the adoptive child is adopted back into the family by a grandparent, descendent of any grandparent or stepparent, the adoptee would only be able to inherit through their new adoptive relatives.  

Estate of Joan Crawford

Joan Crawford, born Lucille Fay Lesuer, suffered a heart attack at the age of 73 in her East 69thStreet Manhattan apartment and died.  Crawford was Hollywood royalty, an icon from the golden age of cinema and one of the most controversial actresses of her time.  For the better part of 35 years Crawford feuded with fellow actress Bette Davis as well as anyone else who crossed her path.  Married four times and unable to conceive children Joan Crawford adopted five children, Christina Crawford, Christopher Crawford, Christopher Crawford, Cindy Crawford and Cathy Crawford.  That is not a misprint, Joan adopted two Cristopher Crawfords but one disliked living with her so much he was shortly reclaimed by his biological family. Upon Joan Crawford’s death Crawford’s NY will distributed her $2 million dollar estate providing for only two of her four adoptive children gifting Cindy and Cathy $77,000 each.  Crawford instead chose to leave the bulk of her $2 million dollar NY estate to various charities including but not limited to the Motion Picture Home among others.  Crawford’s NY will completely disinherits son Christopher Crawford and fellow actress and adoptive daughter Christina Crawford.  

As such both Cristina and Christopher exercised their rights to contest Crawford’s NY estate as her adoptive children pursuant to EPTL 4-1 collecting $55,000.00 each from their mother’s NY estate.  While not a homerun by any stretch of the imagination, this was at least an acknowledgment of their rights to challenge their adoptive mother’s NY estate as distributees and collect a portion, albeit a modest amount, of their inheritance.

Later on, Joan Crawford’s daughter Christina would describe her relationship with her combative adoptive mother Joan Crawford in the release of her tell all book entitled, “Mommy Dearest”.  The book was an a instant best seller and was later made into the 1981 movie entitled Mommy Dearest, depicting the abuse the four adoptive siblings were subjected to by Crawford.  

Asserting inheritance rights pursuant to the NY estate law can be challenging as an adoptee but is not always impossible. With the help of experienced NY estate lawyers who practice exclusively in this arena of NY estate litigation it can be done.  Feel free to call the NY estate litigation lawyers at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates for a free consultation at (718) 261-2444.   Our Queens estate lawyers have more than 60 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.

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