When people think about adoption, images of a young child in need often come to mind. Yet, Florida law contemplates a broader vision. Under Florida Statute § 63.042(1) “[a]ny person, a minor or an adult, may be adopted.” The recent Florida case Dennis v. Kline demonstrates the complications that may arise when an estate plan allows adopted children to become beneficiaries, but fails to address whether “adopted children” includes adopted adults.
Thomas Dennis initially created a trust in 1989 to benefit his five children and their descendants. Unfortunately, two of Mr. Dennis’ children, a son and a daughter, were unable to have children of their own. After the son adopted an infant, Mr. Dennis amended his trust to specifically include “legally adopted persons” as descendants who would receive benefits under the trust.
Many years later and more than a decade after Mr. Dennis’ death, his childless daughter, Dianna, adopted her “godchild”: a twenty-seven-year-old woman whose (still living) biological parents were Dianna’s close friends. Dianna’s objective in adopting the godchild was for her to benefit under Mr. Dennis’ trust.
Harriet, another of Mr. Dennis’ daughters, objected to allowing the godchild to be a beneficiary because, despite the trust language including “adopted persons,” she felt her father never intended the trust to benefit adopted adults – only adopted children, such as the infant adopted by her brother. A contentious lawsuit ensued over how Mr. Dennis would have felt about adult adoption, a topic he never discussed with his children nor, more importantly, the lawyer who changed his trust.
In the end, the court held that the godchild was eligible to be a beneficiary of the trust. The court reasoned that, because Florida law expressly allowed adult adoption at the time Mr. Dennis amended his trust, we can all assume he knew the law of Florida and intended to allow adult adoption, since he did not specify otherwise. (I wonder what Mr. Dennis would have to say about that if he was still around!)
This case shows how the issue of adult adoption can cause costly and hurtful litigation between family members if you leave the issue unaddressed in your estate plan, as Mr. Dennis did. To learn more about preventing unnecessary litigation over your “true wishes” through comprehensive estate planning, you are welcome to attend one of our monthly “Truth About Estate Planning” workshops.