Under New York law, children of who are adopted-out are not entitled to an intestate share of their biological parents’ estate. However, exceptions to this rule were enacted to the Domestic Relations Law starting in 1987. In 1987, the New York legislature revised the statute by adding a provision to Domestic Relations Law § 117 permitting adopted-out children in intrafamily adoption situations to inherit from their birth family members in certain specified circumstances.
The issue in the case of In re the Estate of LaBelle is whether the current rule allowing adopted-out children in intrafamily adoptions to inherit from their birth family members applies to a child who was adopted out prior to 1987.
Decedent died intestate on September 2, 2010. He had never married. On December 23, 2010, decedent’s sister, Marjorie LaBelle, petitioned the court to be appointed administrator of his estate. Letters of administration were issued to Marjorie on February 2, 2011. The decedent was survived by six siblings, Barbara LaBelle, Shirley Jones, Linda LaBelle, Marjorie LaBelle, Gary LaBelle, and Gregory LaBelle. There were also five children of decedent’s predeceased half-brother Allen Jewett. Allen was adopted by decedent’s father’s sister, Mary LaBelle.”
In this case, Marjorie petitioned the court for advice as to whether Allen Jewett’s children were intestate distributees of decedent Lawrence’s estate given that Allen was adopted out on August 20, 1949 prior to revision of Section 117 of the NYS Domestic Relations Law.
The question for the court was, notwithstanding Allen’s adoption-out in 1949, are Allen’s children entitled to an intestate share of this (Lawrence’s) estate. The history of adoption law in New York is that originally it explicitly excluded inheritance from among the rights acquired or lost through adoptive relationships. In 1963 that section 117 of the Domestic Relations Law was amended to preclude adopted-out children from inheriting through their birth relationships, except in cases of adoption by a stepparent. In 1987, the legislature revised the statute by adding a provision to Domestic Relations Law § 117 permitting adopted-out children in intrafamily adoption situations to inherit from their birth family members in certain specified circumstances.
In interpreting section 117, the court has stated that “in cases where a child is adopted by a close family member, ‘the Legislature has chosen not to cut off inheritance ties between the adopted-out child and the natural family that has been replaced because of the likelihood of continued contact with that family.’” Matter of Seaman, 78 NY2d 451, 461 (1991)
Here, the adopted-out child, decedent’s brother Allen, and decedent, are both the paternal grandchildren of Tom LaBelle. Furthermore, Allen’s adoptive mother, Mary Frances Jewett, is Tom LaBelle’s daughter. Thus, Allen had the right to inherit “from and through either [of his] birth parent[s]” (Domestic Relations Law § 117(1)(e), that is, through his birth father, Ronald.
The court concluded that Allen would be an intestate distributee of any of Ronald’s other children who died without surviving spouse, children or parent. EPTL 4-1.1 (a)(5). Because Allen predeceased his decedent brother, Allen’s children are now entitled to take, in equal pro rata shares, a one-seventh share of decedent’s estate by representation (EPTL 1-2.16).