New Jersey Court Rejects "Equitable Adoption" Argument Seeking to Block Child's Inheritance

Trusts and Estates Law Alert

On November 7, 2018, the Appellate Division of New Jersey’s Superior Court ruled in favor of a decedent’s only child, and against the decedent’s siblings, who were trying to disinherit the child using a creative “equitable adoption” theory. In re the Estate of Douglas Castellano and the Parentage of Gregory Bock, 2018 N.J. Super. LEXIS 152, No. A-0165-17T3 (Approved for Publication Nov. 7, 2018).  By rejecting the use of “equitable adoption” as a sword, rather than a shield, the court affirmed the primacy of statutory law over judicial fiat in property succession law.  It also highlighted the importance of making a will, to avoid distribution of assets to unintended beneficiaries.   

Background
Elisa Maciaverna ended a two year relationship with Douglas Castellano and married Gregory Allen Bock (“Greg Sr.”) two months later in 1977.  She gave birth to a child seven months later.  The boy was named Gregory Allen Bock, Jr. (“Greg Jr.”) and his birth certificate identified Greg Sr. as the father, even though Greg Sr. knew he was not the boy’s natural father.   

Greg Sr. and Elisa separated three years later and their marriage ended by divorce judgment entered in 1983. Greg Sr. and Greg. Jr. had very little contact after the separation, seeing each other for brief visits approximately twice per year.   

Elisa never remarried, and raised Greg Jr. by herself.  She revealed to Greg Jr. that Douglas Castellano was his biological father in 2008, when he was thirty years old. Castellano’s parentage was later confirmed by a DNA test.  Greg Jr. was stunned by this news, but eventually commenced a casual relationship with Castellano consisting of occasional phone calls and even less frequent visits.  

Castellano was murdered in 2016, and he died without a will.   Castellano’s siblings sought letters of administration, Greg Jr. blocked that administration by filing a caveat, and the parties engaged in a lawsuit.   

Arguments and Analysis
Greg Jr. relied on the law of intestacy in New Jersey, which provides that when a decedent dies without a will and without a surviving spouse or domestic partner, as Castellano did here, the estate passes to “the decedent’s descendants by representation.”  N.J.S.A. 3B:5-4(a).  The only way a decedent’s siblings inherit from an intestate decedent is if the decedent had no spouse, no children and no living parents.  Greg Jr. argues he was the only descendant of Castellano, and should take the entirety of his estate by intestacy.  Greg Jr.’s status as Castellano’s only child was confirmed by DNA test, as the decedent’s siblings conceded. 

Nevertheless, Castellano’s siblings argued they, not Greg Jr., should inherit 100% of Castellano’s intestate estate, because Greg Jr. was “equitably adopted” by Greg Sr., thereby severing his parental relationship with Castellano.  The siblings’ argument was based primarily on N.J.S.A. 9:17-43(a)(1), which declares that “[a] man is presumed to be the biological father of a child if  . . . [h]e and the child's 

biological mother are or have been married to each other and the child is born during the marriage . . . ."  The siblings also argued there is a "strong public policy favoring family preservation when neither the mother nor her husband have in any way disavowed the husband's paternity of the child.” (citing M.F. v. N.H., 252 N.J. Super. 420, 425 (App. Div. 1991)). 

Equitable adoption (a/k/a “adoption by estoppel” or “virtual adoption”) is a judicial construct “used to uphold claims by a child not formally adopted to benefits from his ‘adoptive parents’ in the same manner as the parents’ natural or legally adopted children.”  In re Trust u/a Vander Poel, 396 N.J. Super. 218, 233 (App. Div. 2007).  “The doctrine provides a remedy for a child in a promised but unfulfilled adoption by granting specific performance of an express or implied contract to adopt, and by estopping any challenge to the validity of the claimed adoption.”  Id.   

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment to Greg Jr. and rejected the siblings’ novel argument.  The Appellate Division summarized, “The siblings' argument pits the statute that a child born of a mother in wedlock is presumed to also be the child of her husband, N.J.S.A. 9:1743(a)(1), against the intestacy laws, which declare – without limitation or qualification – that a child inherits to the exclusion of the decedent's siblings, N.J.S.A. 3B:5- 4(a).”   

The siblings pointed to the following facts in support of the equitable adoption argument:

  • Greg Jr. was named after Greg Sr.;
  • Greg Sr. was identified as Greg Jr.’s father on the birth certificate;
  • Greg Sr.’s and Elisa’s divorce judgment recognizes a father-son relationship; and
  • an obituary referred to Greg. Jr. as Greg Sr.’s son.  

The Appellate Division rejected all of those arguments, “primarily because the facts urged in support are the product of the conscious and deliberate steps taken by persons other than [Greg Jr.].”   

The Appellate Division concluded, “None of the authorities we have discussed – nor any others of which we are aware – support the use of "equitable adoption" to destroy a child's right to inherit. Instead, the theory was designed to recognize and enforce inheritance rights that, in the theory's absence, would be lost.”  Stated differently, the equitable adoption doctrine has historically been understood as a defensive doctrine, protecting children who would otherwise suffer an injustice.  The siblings attempted to invert the doctrine and use it offensively, to strip Greg Jr. of his inheritance rights.   

The court refused to allow that argument to succeed, finding the siblings’ arguments “at best embody only the contention that because they had a fuller relationship with their brother than did [Greg Jr.], they and not [Greg Jr.] should inherit.”  The Appellate Division noted the Legislature had not allowed for any exception to the priorities of intestacy that favor children over siblings, and the court could not create such an exception by judicial fiat.  

Conclusion
This case highlights the importance of proper estate planning.  If Castellano intended to provide for his siblings in the event of his death, rather than the son he hardly knew, he could have done so by executing a will.  Estate planning is important for everyone, but it is even more crucial in circumstances in which the family relations are more complex, as they were in this case.  Speak to us today to avoid surprises and to ensure your assets pass to whom you want to receive them.