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The Moneyist: ‘My biological father abandoned me’: I was adopted by my maternal grandparents when my mom died. Do I have legal claims on my father’s estate?

Dear Quentin,

I was born out of wedlock in the mid-1960s.

My biological father was not listed on my original birth certificate. My birth mother died when I was a tot, and I was then adopted by my maternal grandparents. I didn’t even know the circumstances of my birth until I was a teenager.

My biological father abandoned me and my mother. I met him as a young adult and have since lost contact, as he is avoiding me for some reason. Do I have any legal claims to any possible inheritance when he does eventually pass away?

Abandoned and Adopted Son

Dear Son,

Discovering that you had a father you never knew about must have come as a shock to you, and it must have taken great courage to seek him out. Unfortunately, there’s no accounting for other people’s behavior, including that of one’s parents. As to your question, it’s complicated, and the answer will vary by state. It also depends on the forensic circumstances of your case.

Leaving aside his potential reasons for not maintaining contact, your father could end up including you in his will. That would obviously be the easiest way to ensure you inherited a share of his estate. The opposite, of course, is also true. He could make efforts to exclude you from his will, if he believed you were interested in an inheritance and preserve the shares of other heirs.

Generally, the inheritance rights of a child to claim a share of his or her biological parents’ estate are irrevocably severed when he or she is adopted. That said, the adopted child is entitled to a share of their adoptive parents’ estate equal to those of their siblings, regardless of whether those siblings are adopted or biological children. 

There was a highly unusual case in New York in 2005, where a woman, Mildred Murphy, specifically bequeathed money and a cottage by a lake to her biological son, Arthur, who was subsequently known as Clair Willard Manning in his adopted family, and cash to his two children. But Arthur/Clair predeceased his biological mother by 11 months.

“Generally, the inheritance rights of a child to claim a share of his or her biological parents’ estate is severed when they are adopted.”

The Court of Appeals ruled that when Mildred named her son in her will, he was  no longer a legal stranger. “We therefore conclude that when Mildred Murphy named her adopted-out son Clair as a beneficiary of her will, she triggered the condition in §117(2) that made him a non-stranger, and thus her issue, with respect to the relevant bequest,” the ruling said.

In California, adoption similarly severs the legal relationship between the biological parent and their child. But there are exceptions — namely, if the biological parent and adopted child lived together as parent and child, or the biological parent in question was cohabiting or married to the other biological parent at the time the child was conceived, and died before the child’s birth.

Your father was not aware you were adopted, but he did abandon you and your mother prior to your adoption. You would need to consult a lawyer in your state to determine the viability of any claim succeeding. Your hypothetical case could set a legal precedent like the estate of Mildred Murphy or, far more likely, you could embark on a costly and, ultimately, futile legal process.

If your biological father does not wish to have a relationship with you, that’s a choice you will ultimately have to accept. If he suspects that you want more from the relationship than the opportunity to get to know him, odds are that that would close any remaining doors. I hope your maternal grandparents gave you what you needed to embark on a happy, fulfilling life. 

Your emotional and financial independence is a bequest that no amount of money can buy. 

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

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• ‘Our friends always yearned for a relationship like ours’: My husband of 16 years left me for another man. I don’t want them to live in our properties. What can I do?

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