My friend discovered he had a biological daughter 60 years ago. Does she — or her family — have a claim on his estate?

Dear Quentin,

I have a question for you that is short and sweet. (Or maybe not so sweet.) My friend recently learned through DNA analysis via an online service that he had a daughter 60 years ago that he was unaware of. He also learned that the mother had put the child up for adoption shortly after she was born. Does this daughter or her family have any claim on the assets of the biological father either before or after death?

Concerned Friend

Also see: I inherited $246,000 from my mother and used $142,000 to pay off our mortgage. If we divorce, can I get it back?

“If a child was put up for adoption and has legal parents, they do not typically have a legal right to make a claim of inheritance on the estate of their biological parents.”

MarketWatch illustration

Dear Friend,

Your question has a short answer. A biological child — but not the child’s family — would theoretically have a claim on a parent’s property. In this case, however, it’s unlikely: If a child was put up for adoption and has legal parents, they do not typically have a legal right to make a claim of inheritance on the estate of their biological parents. In the eyes of the law, the child’s legal relationship with their biological parents has been severed.

Your friend is also not powerless. He can choose to write a will — as most people should do whether or not they have children — stating what he wishes will happen to his estate. (Read more on that here.) Dying intestate will mean that his assets will be divided, according to the laws of his state. It’s also smart to update beneficiaries on life-insurance policies and other financial accounts on a yearly or bi-yearly basis. Relationships evolve or come to a natural end, people die, and circumstances change.

Now, the long answer: The laws around establishing paternity through DNA evidence with a view to making a claim on a parent’s estate vary by state, and they can even differ depending on whether the estate belongs to the mother or father. The law was once quite blunt, and anyone “born out of wedlock” — in the antiquated phrase — could not make a claim on a parent’s estate. Those laws were effectively overturned in 1968 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Levy v. Louisiana.

There may be unusual exceptions. In Maine, for instance, “even if you die with a will in place that grants your estate to your children,” according to Murray, Plumb & Murray, “Maine’s ‘pretermitted heir’ statute might still apply to permit a biological or adopted child who is omitted from the will (and who was born or adopted after you executed your will) to receive a share of your estate equal to the value which the child would have received if you had died without a will.”

New York has very specific conditions for such an inheritance. “A non-marital child may present evidence to show open and notorious acknowledgement such as: pictures of themselves with the father, affidavits or testimony from friends and relatives stating that the father openly and notoriously acknowledged the child or that they saw them together engaging in a father-child relationship,” according to the law offices of Roman Aminov.

“The child may even present correspondence such as text messages or emails from the decedent in which he acknowledged the child,” the Flushing, N.Y.-based law firm adds. “A child may also present proof in the form of a court ordered determination of paternity during the child’s lifetime, or a document signed by the father acknowledging paternity during his lifetime that meets the standards under Public Health Law §4135-b.

In my experience writing this column, children seeking to get to know their parents are most often looking for recognition and acknowledgement, or wanting to establish a relationship with their biological parents and siblings. It’s a natural process of discovery that allows a person to feel tethered to the world through people with whom they share DNA and helps them learn more about their family history, traits and even medical history.

However, as this person discovered when they sought out their biological father, it doesn’t always work out as hoped. The parent may not welcome the introduction, instead seeing it as an intrusion. The child could be disappointed by the biological parent’s character or choices and realize they have far more in common with their adoptive parents. The problem arises when the child in question views inheritance as a substitute for those lost years and, yes, for love.

It works both ways. Of course, biological parents and even grandparents can also see their long-lost relatives as a cash cow. This woman, who was adopted when she was a baby, wrote to me last year to tell me how her biological grandmother began hinting that she needed money, and threatened her with a lawsuit. Grandma stayed at her house rent-free, and showed no signs of ever moving out. In this case, I told the reader, “G” is for grandma, but “G” is also for grifter.

In an ideal world, your friend will meet his 60-year-old biological daughter without either party wanting anything, and become friends. When reconnecting, however, tread carefully. Not every story of long-lost children finding their parents or grandparents has a happy ending ripped from the pages of the musical “Oliver!” or “Annie.” People are flawed, and some come with unrealistic emotional and, yes, financial needs. Tread carefully, and just be aware that high expectations can often lead to resentment and disappointment.

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