Stepson’s Claim That He Was “Equitably Adopted” By His Intestate Stepfather Fails; Estate Passes To Decedent’s Brother

The decedent died without a will, and without a spouse, domestic partner, or children.

Under the New Jersey laws of intestacy, if a decedent dies without a spouse or domestic partner, the decedent’s “descendants” inherit the estate. A “descendant” is defined to include a “child,” which in turn is defined as “any individual, including a natural or adopted child… and excludes any individual who is only a step child.”

After the decedent’s brother brought an action to be appointed administrator of the estate and asserted his right to inherit the estate, the decedent’s stepson countered that he was entitled to inherit because he had been “equitably adopted” by the decedent. According to the stepson, when he was three years old, his mother had married the decedent, and the only reason the decedent did not legally adopt him was that his birth father refused to cooperate. The stepson claimed that the decedent was the only father he had ever known. He also claimed that the decedent’s relationship with his brother was very limited, which the decedent’s brother disputed.

On the return date of the order to show cause, the court heard oral argument, rejected the stepson’s claim of equitable adoption, and declared the brother to be the sole heir.

On appeal, the Appellate Division noted that equitable adoption is a judicial doctrine designed to provide a remedy for a child “in a promised but unfulfilled adoption by granting specific performance of an express or implied contract to adopt.” To establish equitable adoption, an agreement to adopt must be established by “rigid and extracting” proof.

In the instant case, the stepson had the burden of establishing that the decedent had impliedly agreed to adopt him. The stepson presented evidence that he viewed his stepfather as his father, and that the decedent had expressed an interest in adopting him when he was a child, but that his birth father had objected. There was no evidence that the decedent had taken any further action, even after the stepson reached the age of majority. Thus, the court found that, even if the stepson’s allegations were accepted as true, there was no basis to conclude that the decedent ever agreed to adopt him.

The appellate court also rejected the stepson’s claim that the lower court had erred by summarily granting the brother’s application, and that he had lacked notice that the court would decide the equitable adoption issue on the return date of the order to show cause. The Appellate Division rejected this claim. It found that the court had been authorized to proceed summarily on a probate complaint under the court rules, and “where no objection is made by any party or the affidavits show palpably that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, the court may try the action on the pleadings and affidavits, and render final judgment thereon.”

A copy of In re Estate of Feinstein can be found here – In the Matter of the Intestate Estate of Richard C. Feinstein, Deceased

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