Can an Adopted Child Still Inherit From Biological Parents?

silhouette of adult holding child's hand - adopted child inherit from biological parent concept

Most people expect that after their death, their property will go to their family. But what exactly does that mean? If you adopt a child, do they have the same inheritance rights under the law as any biological children you have? What about stepchildren? If you surrender a child for adoption, are they still entitled to inherit from you under the law?

Questions like these arise more often than you might think. If you want to protect the inheritance rights of a child you care about, read on to understand how and when an adopted child can inherit from a biological parent.

Does an Adopted Child Have Inheritance Rights?

Adoption is a legal process that creates a legal parent-child relationship between two people, and severs the legal relationship between the child and a person who was previously their legal parent (usually the biological parent).

Once a child has been adopted by a parent, they have the same legal rights with respect to that parent as if they were born to them. As such, if the parent dies without an estate plan, the adopted child would still be legally entitled to a share of the parent’s estate.

For example, let’s say that Ursula is a single parent to her biological child, Flo. She legally adopts another child named Jet. Shortly thereafter, Ursula tragically dies before having a chance to make a will. Under the laws of intestate succession, Flo and Jet are entitled to equal shares of Ursula’s estate. There is no distinction between them based on whether they are biological or adopted children.

Can Stepchildren Inherit From Stepparents?

In many families, the relationship between stepparents and their stepchildren is as close as any relationship between a biological parent and child. However, a stepparent is not a legal parent to their stepchild unless and until they formally adopt the child, which may not be possible unless the biological parent is willing to relinquish their parental rights and allow the stepparent to adopt. No matter how close the bond between a stepparent and stepchild might be, the stepchild has no automatic right to inherit from the stepparent.

Imagine that Ruth and Todd have a daughter, Daisy, together. They divorce when Daisy is an infant, and within a year, Ruth marries James. Todd is an absentee parent who rarely sees Daisy; James raises Daisy as his own child, but does not adopt her. Fifteen years later, both Todd and James are killed in an accident, but neither has a will. Although Daisy lived with James and saw him daily, she has no legal right to inherit from his estate. However, as Todd’s legal child, she does have the right to a share of his estate.

Can an Adopted Child Claim Inheritance From Biological Parents?

The short answer to the question “Can an adopted child inherit from biological parents?” is generally no. Because the adoption severs the legal relationship between the biological parent and child, there is no legal basis for the child to inherit from the biological parent’s estate under the law.

Furthermore, when a biological parent’s legal relationship to the child is severed, so is the legal relationship between the child and the biological parent’s other relatives, such as the child’s biological grandparents. That means that the child would have no automatic legal right to inherit from the grandparents’ estate, either.

For example, it is not uncommon for a young widowed parent with small children to remarry. Because the children’s biological parent has died, there is no obstacle to the stepparent (the surviving parent’s new spouse) adopting the children. Even if the children continue to see their biological grandparents regularly after the adoption, they no longer have a legal relationship with them. Accordingly, when the grandparents die, unless the grandparents have an estate plan that dictates otherwise, the biological grandchildren will not inherit from them.

Creating Inheritance Rights Where There is No Legal Relationship

If you have been reading carefully, you may have noticed that we have said things like “no automatic right to inherit” or “no legal right to inherit” when talking about the relationship between a biological parent whose child has been adopted by someone else, or a stepparent and stepchild. What that means is that the law does not create inheritance rights in that situation—but individuals can.

A person who is not legally related to another person can create inheritance rights simply by making an estate plan. For example, if you are a grandparent whose adult child has died and whose young grandchild has been adopted by a stepparent, you can make a will or trust and leave property to the child. A stepparent who has not adopted their stepchild can still make gifts to that child through their own estate plan. For that matter, in most cases, any adult can leave all or part of their estate to an unrelated person through an estate plan.

Who we consider “family” isn’t always a straightforward concept—and the legal definition of family may not match our personal definition. Because about ⅔ of Americans don’t have any estate plan at all, the law of intestacy tries to approximate what most people would do if they had made a will, i.e., distributing an estate to the nearest legal relatives. However, you have the power to leave your property to whomever you wish—and all it takes is a call or email to an estate planning attorney to get started.

To learn more about estate planning and inheritance rights, contact Suzanne R. Fanning PLLC to schedule a consultation.