What happens to a biological child's inheritance if they have been adopted by a stepparent?

Dear Len & Rosie,

My recently deceased brother had a daughter thirty years ago. He and his wife divorced within her first year of her life. Apparently, my brother’s daughter was adopted by her mother’s second husband after she remarried.  Would this daughter be legally entitled to any part of my brother’s estate or his trust? My brother had a living trust and didn’t want to leave anything to her, but the trust didn’t specifically name her and exclude her from an inheritance. Instead, the trust says, “I have purposefully omitted any other relatives from any and all distributions.” Is this a problem?


Dear Nancy,

When we meet an estate planning client, the first thing we do is to talk about the client’s family. How many children and grandchildren are there? Are there any deceased or disabled children? Are there children our client has adopted, or children who’ve been adopted away? It’s also a subtle way to quiz a client’s mental capacity. It’s a good sign when a client knows the names and ages of all seven of her grandchildren.

If our client wishes to disinherit a child, we like to include language such as “The settlor has intentionally and with full knowledge of the consequences made no provision for the settlor’s daughter, Nancy, or her issue.” (Issue is a legal term that means “descendents.”) From what you’re telling us, it looks like your brother’s attorney may not have been that thorough.

Fortunately, the law is somewhat forgiving. Your niece will always be the biological daughter of your brother, but if she was adopted by her step-father, she’s no longer legally related to you or your brother. She’s not entitled to notice of the existence of your brother’s trust, or notice of a probate. She also does not inherit anything from your brother’s trust or probate estate unless the trust or will names her as a beneficiary.

Unless you have proof of the adoption, the successor trustee of your brother’s trust should provide your niece (or ex-niece) notice of the existence of the trust under Probate Code section 16061.7. Play it safe.

If she was never adopted away from your brother, she’s still not entitled to inherit anything if your brother’s will and trust left everything to others. The only time a child is automatically cut into an estate plan is if the trust or will fails to dispose of everything, or if the child was born after the trust or will was created.

So why name children and specifically disinherit them when it strictly isn’t necessary? It makes the client’s intentions clear. It’s harder to prove a man didn’t know he was disinheriting a daughter when his initials are next to a paragraph saying so in clear unambiguous language.

Len & Rosie