TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A recent ruling in a trust fund case highlights the unusual caveats to Florida adoption laws, particularly in light of a few high-profile cases using "adult" adoption in an attempt to redirect trust fund money.
In the latest ruling, Edwards and Kuiper v Maxwell, biological son, Ryan Maxwell ued his father, John Edwards, when he adopted Brindley Kuiper. Maxwell lost upon appeal March 31.
But he alleged he didn’t know about the adoption and couldn’t object and that it was a façade aimed to reduce his trust-fund benefits—further claiming it was a fraud on the court. Kuiper had allegedly already received considerable money from the trusts. However, Maxwell’s could not prove the adoption proceedings had, “a direct, financial and immediate” impact i.e. it did not adversely affect his welfare and receipt of trust fund benefits, the appeals court ruled.
Florida’s adult adoption laws are intended to protect, “adoptees as descendants of their adoptive parents for purposes of inheritance,” Jason Odom of Gould, Cooksey and Fennell said on his blog.
Further, Florida’s adoption statute, specifically the 2006 amendment preceding Stefanos v Rivera-Berrios, addressed the right to notification of an affected party, the right to intervene in an adoption if “direct interests” were affected, and the right to intervene in a third-party adoption proceeding—independent actions, including the right to terminate such a proceeding. Rickard v McKesson further discussed the right to timely notification (as with Goodman v Goodman), if an eligible beneficiary stood to lose trust-fund benefits. DeClaire v. Yohanan also ruled on a plaintiff’s ability to contest a final judgment after the one-year adoption appeals process period ended.
In Goodman v Goodman, another adult adoption case, multimillionaire John Goodman allegedly attempted to adopt his adult girlfriend, 42-year-old Heather Hutchins, in an effort to award her one-third of a $300 million trust left for his two minor children.
“He wanted to protect his assets from collections due to a wrongful death case in which he [was accused of manslaughter],” Odom said.
Goodman reached a $46 million settlement with the deceased’s family. His ex-wife sued and the court voided the adoption under fraud on the court because, as with Edwards, Goodman allegedly failed to notify her of the adoption until after the order was no longer subject to appeal.
The adoption was, “a brazen bid to shield his assets,” Juan Antunez of Will and Trust Contests said in his blog—about the comments of attorneys representing the grieving parents. The appellate court ruled that Goodman’s intentional deception “directly, immediately, and financially impacted the children.”
In Dennis v Kline, deceased settler Thomas Dennis’ adopted daughter Dianna, adopted an adult companion making her a beneficiary of a trust fund that affected Dianna’s five other siblings including Harriet. She sued and won because her interest in the trust was affected. It was ruled fraud on the court because Harriet (et al) were not notified of the adoption.
Finally, in Rickard v McKesson, Donald Blackwell adopted 72-year-old Gordon McKesson making him the beneficiary of a trust which affected Silvia Rickard, Blackwell’s niece. She sued alleging they were a gay couple and it was a ploy to rob her of her inheritance. The court ruled fraud on the court because even though Rickard was contingent (like Edwards), she was different because she was still entitled to notification as her interests were duly affected.
According to state statute, plaintiffs cannot have an “indirect, inconsequential or contingent interest,” in an adoption proceeding as with Edwards. Florida law allows the adoption of an adult except in rare situations as in fraud upon the court as with Goodman, Rickard and Kline. In all these cases the court has said providing notice and an opportunity for beneficiaries of a trust to participate in adoption proceedings and appeal with the one-year period is paramount.