On November 7, 2018, the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court ruled in favor of a descendant’s only child and against the descendant’s siblings in an inheritance matter. The descendant’s siblings sought to disinherit the child using an “equitable adoption theory.” The court’s decision affirmed the primacy of statutory law over judicial fiat in property succession law. The matter also brought to light the importance of making a Last Will and Testament in order to avoid distribution of assets to undesired beneficiaries.
Elisa Maciaverna was in a two-year relationship with Douglas Castellano. She ended the relationship and married Gregory Allen Block (Greg Sr.). Seven months later Elisa gave birth to a baby boy whose natural father was Douglas Castellano. Despite the lack of a biological connection, the child was named Gregory Allen Block, Jr. (Greg Jr.) after Greg Sr. who identified himself as his father on the birth certificate. Greg Sr. did this despite the fact that he knew that the child was not his.
Three years later, in 1983, Greg Sr. and Elisa divorced and, following the separation, Greg Sr. and Greg Jr. saw each other twice a year. Elisa raised Greg Jr. by herself and, in 2008, when he was 30 years old, she revealed that his birth father was Douglas Castellano. A DNA test later confirmed the biological connection. Eventually, Greg Jr. and Douglas Castellano established a casual relationship, consisting of occasional phone calls and less frequent visits.
In 2016, Castellano was murdered and died without a Last Will and Testament. Castellano’s siblings sought letters of administration, which were blocked by Greg Jr. who filed a caveat. The parties then commenced a lawsuit.
Greg Jr.’s argument was based on New Jersey’s law of intestacy, which states that when a descendant passes away without a Last Will and Testament in place or a spouse, the estate passes to his or her descendants. Under the law of intestacy in New Jersey, the siblings of the descendant could only inherit the estate if the descendant passed away without a spouse, children, or living parents. In this matter, Castellano had no spouse or living parents, but Greg Jr. was his biological son and claimed that, as such, he should be entitled to the entire estate by intestacy.
However, Castellano’s siblings claimed that they should be the ones to inherit 100% of the estate because Greg Jr. was “equitably adopted” by Greg Sr. and, therefore, severed the relationship with Castellano. The siblings’ argument was based on Title 9 Section 9:17-43(a)(1) which states that “a man is presumed to be the biological parent of a child if … [he] and the child’s mother are or have been married to each other and the child is born during the marriage…” The siblings also cited the case M.F. v. N.H., 252 N.J. Super. 420, 425 (App. Div. 1991) which held that there is a “strong public policy favoring family preservation when neither the mother or the husband disavowed the husband’s paternity of the child.”
Equitable adoption (also known as constructive adoption) is established through actions or promises by the parent, rather than a court order. In some states, it is used to establish inheritance rights for a child when a prospective parent had entered into an oral contract expressing his or her desire or intention to adopt the child. The legal doctrines of equitable adoption arise when a person who had taken care of a minor child for many years passes away. If the descendent dies without a Last Will and Testament, the child may present a claim to part or all of the estate based on equitable adoption. If the descendant dies with a Last Will and Testament but the child is not mentioned in it, the child may still present a claim for a part of the parent’s estate on the basis that he or she is an omitted or pretermitted child.
The Appellate Division ultimately ruled in Greg Jr.’s favor and rejected the siblings’ arguments, stating that the “facts urged in support are the product of conscious and deliberate steps taken by persons other than [Greg Jr.].” The Appellate Division stated that none of the authorities of “equitable adoption” that were discussed during the case, or any others that they were aware of, support the use of “equitable adoption” to destroy a child’s right to inherit. Instead, the theory was used to recognize and enforce inheritance rights. In addition, the court refused to let the siblings’ argument succeed, stating that their sole contention was based on the theory that because they had a fuller relationship with the descendant, than Greg Jr. did, that they are more entitled to the estate.
Henceforth, the matter highlights the importance of proper estate planning. If Castellano sought to provide his estate to his siblings, rather than his son, he could have specified those details in his Last Will and Testament. Estate planning is important for everyone but especially for those whose family relations are complex, as they were in this case.
The attorneys at the Law Offices of Hunziker, Jones, and Sweeney are experienced New Jersey estate planning lawyers. The firm helps individuals and their families handle all aspects of estate planning, including creating a Last Will and Testament. Our New Jersey estate planning lawyers are trusted by their clients to handle each legal matter with diligence and compassion. For more information, contact our New Jersey estate planning law firm at (973) 256-0456.