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Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Adult Adoption: The Good, the Bad, and the Unintentional

In Family Law, Texas Law on February 9, 2012 at 11:07 AM

The recent adult adoption by a Florida businessman, John Goodman, of his girlfriend, who is only six years younger than him at the age of 42, has raised a few eyebrows, to say the least. It has been speculated that Goodman adopted his girlfriend for the sole purpose of protecting assets from an ongoing civil dispute of which Goodman is the defendant. Goodman is currently being sued for wrongful death based on events that occurred two years ago when he ran a stop sign and fatally struck a 23 year old man. A trust fund that Goodman created for the benefit of his two minor children has been excluded from Goodman’s financial worth for the jury to take into consideration when determining an appropriate award in the civil suit. With Goodman’s adoption of his girlfriend, he is essentially regaining control of a third of the assets held in the trust through his girlfriend’s claim as a beneficiary. While a court may eventually find that Goodman’s girlfriend may not benefit from the trust because the adoption was a sham, as of now that has not occurred and she is presumed to be a legitimate beneficiary of the trust.

Goodman’s case reveals one of the possible ways a person may abuse the laws allowing adult adoption. While the majority of adult adoptions are not used to manipulate the legal system, there is a (somewhat legitimate) fear that this option will be used in a way that was not intended by the lawmakers. Looking to Texas’s laws covering adult adoption, it is easy to see that the Texas legislature was concerned about the possibility for abuse and attempted to curtail that possibility with some disincentives, making an adult adoption look less attractive to a person looking to use it for abusive purposes.

The Texas Family Code Chapter 162 covers adoption in Texas. Section 162.501 specifically allows the adoption of an adult by another adult. An adult adoption is not very different procedurally from the adoption of a minor. An exception to this is that the adult being adopted must consent to the adoption. See § 162.504. Where the two adoptions become very different is in the effect of each. The effect of an adoption of a minor is that a legal parent-child relationship is created and the adopted child may inherit from and through the adoptive parents, as well as his biological parents. See § 162.017. An adopted adult, however, may not inherit from his biological parents, and may only inherit from and through his adoptive parents. See § 162.507.

This distinction between the inheritance rights of an adopted minor and an adopted adult came about when the legislature amended this chapter of the Texas Family Code in 2005. A possible reason behind this change was to make an adult adoption a less attractive option for people who wanted to use it for a purpose other than its intended purpose (to legally recognize a parent-child relationship). One way it can be used, as we saw in the Goodman case discussed above, is to hide assets by creating a new beneficiary of a trust who would be more inclined to hold that wealth for the adoptive parent. Another way the adult adoption option is abused is when one member of a same sex couple adopts the other. This can ensure inheritance rights that could otherwise be challenged if only preserved in a will. Since same sex couples cannot legally marry in many states, including Texas, this is a potential option for couples who want to leave their property to each other. With the changes made in 2005, however, this decision is a much more serious one because now if a same sex partner adopts the other partner, the adopted adult can no longer inherit from his biological parents (unless, of course, the biological parent provides otherwise in his will). The inheritance consequences of adult adoption are more serious than those of a minor adoption, and this was most likely done intentionally—to discourage adults from adopting other adults that are not actually their “children”.

One negative consequence of the 2005 amendments that might not have been intentional, however, deals with the situation of a step-parent adopting an adult step-child. In this case, even if the step-parent is married to the step-child’s biological parent, the adult adoption would still cut off the child’s right to inherit from the biological parent. While the statute does demand that the step-parent and his spouse (biological mother) both join on the petition to adopt, it would not make practical sense for the mother to join the petition because she is already the child’s parent. See § 162.503(b). Since these amendments were changed fairly recently, it is difficult to determine what the effect will be on adoptions by a step-parent who is married to the child’s biological parent.

Returning to the Goodman case above, if this had occurred in Texas, Goodman’s girlfriend would have had a lot to consider before agreeing to this plan because she would be giving up her right to inherit from her biological parents. But whether an adult adoption occurs in Texas, Florida, or anywhere else, the adopter and adoptee should both be certain of their decision, because no matter what state you are in, one thing is true: Marriage can end in divorce, but adoption is forever.