Adult Adoption in California – A Tool for Estate Planning?

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Modern statutes have evolved to regard adopted children as integral members of families, emphasizing the best interests of the child. While the majority of states in the U.S. do permit adult adoption, there is variability in the degree of restrictions placed upon this process. To get a deeper understanding, let’s delve into California law. It’s essential to note that these adoptions don’t merely change the legal status of two adults; they also add intricate layers to discussions about inheritance.

But why would someone opt to adopt another adult? For a more in-depth insight into this question, we turn to Jackie Messler’s comprehensive research, which can be found in her law review article.

WHY WOULD AN ADULT ADOPT ANOTHER ADULT?

A. Common Reasons

There are several core reasons behind this phenomenon:

Firstly, adult adoption serves as a means to solidify relationships that have existed in everything but name. For example, it allows a step-parent or a foster parent to legalize their bond with their step or foster child, respectively, establishing a recognized familial relationship.

A secondary motivation can be rooted in financial or legal incentives. Some individuals adopt to ensure that their adoptee benefits from certain financial privileges, such as being named in a class gift or receiving inheritance in situations where a will hasn’t been left behind. The legal community, however, isn’t unanimous on this front. Especially when the individual bestowing the gift isn’t the one participating in the adoption, the courts’ perspectives can diverge. In a particularly notable case, a man even went to the lengths of adopting his own mother, ensuring she could benefit from his father’s trust.

Another intriguing motive for such adoptions is the strategic move to counteract any potential challenges to a person’s will. By adopting an adult, the adopter can negate the legal standing of any blood relatives who might have otherwise contested the will. An illustrative case of this tactic in action is “Collamore v. Learned,” wherein an elderly gentleman adopted three adults. His primary aim was to circumvent any challenges his other relatives might pose to his will. The renowned Justice Holmes gave his seal of approval to this unusual but lawful action.

B. Less Prevalent Reasons

Beyond these primary reasons, several other incentives may inspire individuals to adopt adults. Some are financially motivated, such as the potential tax benefits. By adopting, a person could claim “head of household” status or dodge the inheritance tax. This financial angle was the central issue in a Delaware case, “In re Adoption of Swanson,” where the adopter’s primary objective was to benefit from a reduced inheritance tax rate.

Others adopt to navigate around housing regulations. For instance, a Colorado resident once adopted his partner purely to bypass a local rule that mandated residents in a specific area be related.

Then there are the myriad of other perks: from obtaining access to health insurance, securing survivor benefits, to ensuring rights to life insurance payouts and Social Security disbursements. Adopting can even grant hospital visitation rights, provide immigration advantages, and offer university enrollment privileges.

In sum, while the primary motivations for adult adoption may appear straightforward, the nuances and individual stories reveal a tapestry of human creativity, emotion, and strategy.

The Law in California

California Family Code (Sections 9300-9307):
      • § 9300:
        • Adults can be adopted by other adults, including stepparents.
        • A married minor can be adopted similarly to an adult.
      • § 9301:
        • A married person must have their spouse’s consent (if the spouse is capable) to adopt an adult, unless they are lawfully separated.
      • § 9302:
        • A married person cannot be adopted without their spouse’s consent, unless they are lawfully separated.
        • Consent from the adoptee’s parents, department, or any other entity is not required.
      • § 9303:
        • Individuals cannot adopt more than one unrelated adult within a year unless the adoptee is the biological sibling of a previously adopted person or if they are disabled/handicapped.
        • A person cannot adopt an unrelated adult within a year of their spouse adopting another person, unless the adoptee is the biological sibling of a previously adopted person.
      • § 9304:
        • The adopted individual can take the family name of the adoptive parent.
      • § 9305:
        • Following the adoption, the adoptee and adoptive parent(s) establish a legal parent-child relationship with associated rights and responsibilities.
      • § 9306:
        • Birth parents are generally relieved of all parental duties and responsibilities upon adoption. They also lose rights over the adoptee.
        • Parental rights are unchanged if an adult is adopted by the spouse of a birth parent.
        • Adopted adults can choose not to terminate the responsibilities of their birth parents by signing a waiver.
      • § 9307:
        • Adoption hearings or hearings about the termination of parental rights may be open to the public at the court’s discretion.

Can Adult Adoptees inherit from their Birth Parents?

Just in case you wondered, adult adoptees are not usually heirs of their birth parents, in other words, they are no longer considered children of their birth parents who could inherit under intestate succession rules. Their birth parents could, of course, still name them in their will. The right to inherit (under intestacy rules) turns on the answer to the question: Did the child-parent relationship after adoption continue or not? Usually, it does not continue. But there are exceptions for both adult and minor adoptees, they are different though. Here is a comparison of the relevant section of the California Family Code:

Comparison Parameters Family Code section 6451 Family Code Section 9306
Parent-child relationship after adoption Adoption severs the relationship unless certain conditions are met. Except as noted,  birth parents are relieved of all parental duties and responsibilities.
Conditions for preserving the parent-child relationship (1) The natural parent and the adopted person lived together at any time as parent and child, or the natural parent was married to or cohabiting with the other natural parent at the time the person was conceived and died before the person’s birth. AND (2) The adoption was by the spouse of either of the natural parents or after the death of either of the natural parents. Only in the case where an adult is adopted by the spouse of a birth parent.

Conclusion

In conclusion, while the primary motivations for adult adoption often revolve around solidifying parent–child relationships and securing inheritance rights, many other reasons can be influenced by a myriad of financial benefits and other personal or legal advantages. As estate planners we can often design less drastic solutions that often accomplish the same or a similar objective.

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