Equitable Adoption Doctrine Cannot be Used to Destroy Inheritance Rights

In re Estate of Douglas Castellano and Parentage of Gregory Bock, 456 N.J. Super. 510 (App. Div. 2018).  This unusually captioned appeal presented a Chancery issue that was right up Judge Fisher’s alley, and it was he who wrote the Appellate Division’s opinion that was issued today.  Describing the issue in the first sentence of his opinion, Judge Fisher stated that the panel was “consider[ing] and reject[ing] an argument that the only child of an intestate decedent may be deprived of an inheritance through application of an ‘equitable adoption’ theory derived from the fact that the child was born after his mother married a man other than the child’s father.”

As Judge Fisher observed, the facts were “a bit convoluted.”  Elisa Marie Machiaverna had a two-year relationship with Douglas Castellano.  Shortly after that ended, she married Gregory Allen Bock.  Seven months later, she gave birth to a child, who was named Gregory Allen Bock, Jr.  The child’s birth certificate stated that Bock, Sr. was the boy’s father even though Machiaverna, Bock, Sr., and Castellano all knew that Castellano, not Bock, Sr., was the father.

Machiaverna and Bock, Sr. divorced about six years after Bock, Jr. was born.  Machiaverna raised Bock, Jr. alone.  Bock, Sr., who remarried and died about twelve years after he and Machiaverna divorced, had little to do with Bock, Jr. at all.

Machiaverna did not tell Bock, Jr. about his true father until Bock, Jr. was thirty years old.  Bock, Jr. and Castellano knew each other but had little more than a “casual relationship” involving “only occasional telephone calls and even fewer visits.”

Castellano was murdered in 2016.  He had no surviving spouse or children, and he had no will.  Two of Castellano’s siblings sought letters of administration.  But with a DNA test having shown that Bock, Jr. was Castellano’s son, Bock, Jr. filed a caveat, and litigation ensued.  Bock, Jr. won summary judgment that he was Castellano’s sole descendant and was entitled to be the sole heir under the intestacy laws.

On appeal, Judge Fisher found that under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-4, since Bock, Jr. was Castellano’s only “descendant by representation,” and there was no dispute that Bock, Jr. was a descendant of Castellano, based on the DNA test, Bock, Jr. alone was entitled to Castellano’s estate.  But the siblings offered a “novel argument that seeks to meld the statutory presumption of parentage arising from Gregory, Jr.’s birth while his mother was married to someone other than his natural father, N.J.S.A. 9:17-43(a), with: a ‘strong public policy’ favoring family preservation ‘when neither the mother nor her husband have in any way disavowed the husband’s paternity of the child,’ M.F. v. N.H., 252 N.J. Super. 420, 425 (App. Div. 1991); representations about [Gregory], Jr.’s parentage in his mother’s divorce judgment; and equitable adoption principles, which generally allow for the recognition of an adoption even when lacking a judicial imprimatur.”

Judge Fisher did not accept the siblings’ argument.  He recognized that the presumption of parentage, “born out of an unfortunate legal concept that viewed an illegitimate child as a nonperson,” was a very strong one.  But the presumption was overcome by the DNA test, and the other circumstances that the siblings cited, such as the fact that Bock, Jr.’s birth certificate, the Machiaverna/Bock, Sr. divorce judgment, and Bock, Sr.’s obituary all stated that Bock, Sr. was Bock, Jr.’s father, did not avail because all of those things involved actions by persons other than Bock, Jr.  He had no role in those actions and his rights could not be undermined by them.

The concept of equitable adoption, which is what the siblings were ultimately arguing for, has been used in certain “compelling circumstances” in order to “recognize and enforce inheritance rights that, in the theory’s absence, would be lost” (emphasis by Judge Fisher).  No case canvassed by Judge Fisher used equitable adoption in order to destroy inheritance rights, and there were no facts here to support the notion that Bock, Sr. ever agreed to adopt Bock, Jr.  Like other equitable doctrines, equitable adoption applies only when “equity and justice” require.  The siblings’ argument that, in essence, because they had a closer relationship with Castellano than did Bock, Jr. they should inherit, could not overcome the intestacy statute that gave the inheritance to Bock, Jr.  Even giving the siblings the benefit of all reasonable inferences, the panel affirmed the decision against them.