Did you know that if someone dies without a valid will, the New Jersey law of intestacy governs who inherits the estate? A New Jersey Court recently decided a case involving an interesting set of facts in intestacy. In the case, Douglas Castellano (“Douglas”) died without a valid will, resulting in a dispute between his siblings and his biological son, Gregory Allen Bock, Jr. (“Gregory, Jr.”)
Gregory, Jr.’s mother, Elisa married Gregory Allen Bock, Sr. (“Gregory, Sr.”) two months after she ended a two-year relationship with Douglas Castellano. Seven months after that, she gave birth to Gregory, Jr. whose birth certificate declared that Gregory, Sr. was his father, even though Gregory, Sr. knew he was not the father of the child. When Gregory, Jr. was less than three years old, Elisa and Gregory, Sr. separated and later finalized their divorce. Elisa never remarried, and she raised Gregory, Jr. alone.
Elisa did not reveal to Gregory, Jr. that Douglas was his biological father until he was 30 years old. After this revelation, Gregory, Jr. and Douglas began an attempt to build a “father-son” relationship.
In addition to having no will when Douglas died, he was not survived by a spouse or any other children. Therefore, Gregory, Jr. argued that as Douglas’s only surviving child, he alone was entitled to the estate pursuant to New Jersey intestacy law. However, Douglas’s siblings argued that they were entitled to his estate because Gregory, Jr. should be considered Gregory, Sr.’s son, as that would prevent Gregory, Jr. from inheriting from his biological father, Douglas.
The siblings’ argument is known as the theory of “equitable adoption.” Under this theory, actions can amount to an adoption of a child even if it is never formalized to a writing before a court. The siblings argued that Gregory, Sr. adopted Gregory, Jr. by: 1) Gregory, Jr. being named after his mother’s husband, Gregory Sr.; 2) Gregory Jr.’s birth certificate listing Gregory Sr. as the father; 3) Gregory Sr. and Elisa’s divorce judgment memorialized the existence of a father-child relationship; and 4) Gregory Sr.’s obituary referred to Gregory, Jr. as Gregory, Sr.’s son.
However, because a DNA test revealed that Douglas fathered Gregory, Jr., the court decided that the evidence of an equitable adoption presented was not compelling enough to determine that Gregory, Sr. agreed to adopt Gregory, Jr. Therefore, Gregory, Jr.’s natural relationship with Douglas should not be legally severed. The court noted that if Douglas intended to provide for his siblings over Gregory, Jr., he could have executed a will that so provided.
The moral of the story is if you do not want the State of New Jersey to decide who should receive your property when you pass away, you should meet with an attorney to have a will prepared to reflect your wishes.