The Moneyologist: My adoptive parents ostracized me because I’m gay — do I have a claim on their estate?
My father died in 2014 and my mother died in January of this year. I was adopted, and my non-biological sister is my only other remaining family member. A second cousin informed me of my mother’s deaths My father did not include me in the will, but so far that’s hearsay. I did call an attorney in Indiana where my family is from, he checked about any deeds for me, and apparently there was no will. Also, what about life insurance policies? Who gets that? My main concern is who acquired all of my mother and father’s personal effects, cars, jewelry, etc. Am I able to receive any of these items?
The main conflict in my family was the fact I’m gay. My mother and father believed it was a “choice,” which explains why I was not left anything. Can I obtain a copy of the will? I asked my father about 10 years ago if I was in the will and he said yes. I would like to know my rights, in particular, how to obtain any of my parents personal effects, as I believe my estranged sister has helped herself. I attempted to contact her in December of 2015, but she never returned my call, so I cannot speak to her at all regarding this matter.
Can I sue? What are my options?
Michael in California
I’m sorry your parents ostracized you from your family. That must have taken a toll on you. Acceptance and love is about the one thing we all expect from our parents and, given that your parents chose you for adoption, it’s even sadder. There are plenty of parents out there who would have loved to adopt a baby and given him the love and respect he deserved. That said, you are absolutely a legal heir as an adopted child. And you have the same right to your parents’ belongings as your sister. To close this chapter in your life and to make a stand, I suggest you pursue it.
Hire a lawyer in Indiana and file a petition with the county court to nominate yourself as executor, if a will was filed. You only need to know the county where your parents resided and you can likely find out whether a will was filed with one phone call. If there was no will and your mother died “intestate,” you are likely entitled to half your parents’ estate. If there was a will and you were not mentioned at all, you could also challenge that will on the basis that your omission was an oversight. “You still have a bite of the apple,” says Patricia Payne, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer.
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Even if you are mentioned in the will, you can still challenge it. You have been quiet for many years and your sister will undoubtedly be shocked to hear from you. It would cost you no more than a few hundred dollars to send that letter and, in such cases, many lawyers would do this on a contingency or even pro bono basis, especially if there’s a valuable asset like a family home at stake. It can be prohibitively expensive to defend such a case, Payne said. Depending on the size of the estate — especially in cases where a family member is estranged — lawyers do advise their clients to settle.
If your sister’s name was not on the deed of the house, the property must go through probate and (without a will saying otherwise) you are entitled to half. Sometimes, parents erroneously list their children as tenants in common on the deeds of their home rather than joint tenants with survivorship rights. In the former case, you again could instruct your lawyer to name you as a rightful heir to 50% of the property. Tenancy in common has no survivorship rights if none are specified in a will.
Most people name beneficiaries on their life insurance policies. In the event there is no named beneficiary, the insurance company would pay the estate and, in that case, you would likely be entitled to half, assuming there is no will. Of course, it’s hard to track down valuables once they have been spirited away by a relative. But if you did successfully make a claim on the estate, your sister would have to account for assets that were taken from your mother’s home. Sometimes, it’s just as important to have your voice heard, regardless of the outcome.
Good luck on finally closing this chapter on your life.
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