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Biological granddaughter can’t inherit despite ‘equitable adoption’

Dear Clients and Friends,

California - as well as other states - has a legal doctrine known as “equitable adoption” under which a parent-child relationship can be recognized even if the child never goes through a formal adoption procedure.

This usually happens in cases where someone has acted as a child’s parent for a significant period of time without ever formally adopting the child. This may include cases involving a stepchild or foster child. In many states, courts will deem a child adopted and thus entitled to inherit from a parent who dies without a will if the relationship began while the child was a minor and continued throughout the parties’ lifetimes, and it can be shown that the purported adoptive parent would have formally adopted the child if not for some legal obstacle (for example, a biological parent not giving consent).

However, a recent North Carolina case shows that equitable adoption has its limits. In that case, a young woman named Harley Shearin sought to have herself declared the sole heir when her biological grandfather, George Shearin, died intestate (without a will) with no other living descendants.

Shearin’s father, Timothy, was legally adopted by his stepfather as a child. But as an adult, he reconnected with George, his biological father, and developed a close relationship with him. Timothy died at age 32, but Harley maintained a close relationship with George until he passed away.

In seeking to have herself declared George’s sole heir, Harley argued that when Timothy reconnected with George he became his legal son once again via equitable adoption. Accordingly, she contended, she became his legal granddaughter.

But the North Carolina Supreme Court saw it differently, deciding that because Timothy was already an adult by the time he reconnected with his biological father the doctrine of equitable adoption was inapplicable. Because Timothy was not equitably adopted, Harley was not George’s granddaughter for the purpose of intestate inheritance.

Have a Family Law, Estate Planning or Probate Law issue? We continue to invite your no-charge inquires to evaluate your problem and to check out if, when and at what cost we might be of help. Look forward to hearing from you all.



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