Brian R. Dolan and Joel M. Commerford have just published an interesting article entitled Virtual Adoption: Not Just for Netizens. Virtual adoption’s one of those probate doctrines that most people don’t know about, but it can be very useful in the right circumstances. So what is “virtual adoption”?

Despite its regrettable name, virtual adoption is not a type of adoption practiced in the family law arena via the Internet. Rather, virtual adoption is a concept lying in the probate court, which allows for the virtually adopted child, who otherwise would be a stranger to his or her virtual adoptive parent’s estate, to take under the estate as a natural or legally adopted child. Prior to 1943, the Florida Supreme Court “found little sympathy” for the doctrine of virtual adoption. However, in considering the authorities cited in the seminal case, the court “became more impressed with its soundness” and recognized the doctrine in Florida.

No Florida court has specifically defined the term “virtual adoption.” A good working definition, however, is “a court given name to a status arising from and created by contract where one takes and agrees to legally adopt the child of another but fails to do so.” While the term has not been specifically defined, the elements of virtual adoption are well established in Florida. [In In re the Heirs of Hodge, 470 So. 2d 740 (Fla. 5th DCA 1985)], the Fifth District Court of Appeal concisely listed the following elements necessary to establish an effective virtual adoption:

  1. An agreement [to adopt] between the natural and adoptive parents;
  2. Performance by the natural parent[s] of the child in giving up custody;
  3. Performance by the child by living in the home of the adoptive parents;
  4. Partial performance by the foster parents in taking the child into the home and treating the child as their child; and
  5. Intestacy of the foster parents.

All five elements must be present, and these elements must be proven by clear and convincing evidence.

Think Laterally: Virtual Adoption = Heir = PR?

The obvious, straight-line application of the virtual adoption doctrine is to establish a claim to an intestate share of an estate. If the authors had stopped there, they would have had a solid article, but not particularly noteworthy. So I was happy to see they went in a different direction; focusing on a less direct – but perhaps equally important – application of the doctrine.

Being someone’s “heir” has all sorts of implications in a probate proceeding; probably the most important from a litigation standpoint being how it plays into who gets appointed personal representative (“PR”). In probate litigation the significance of who’s appointed PR can’t be overstated. The PR can use estate funds to pay his lawyers, the other side has to pay his own way. This one factor alone can often mean the difference between victory and defeat. So yeah, this is a big deal.

And here’s how the authors link the virtual adoption doctrine to the question of who gets appointed PR:

It is a natural extension of the established principles that virtual adoption should also embrace the collateral issues of the appointment of personal representatives and other issues under the intestacy statutes. Florida courts have never addressed the question of whether virtual adoption confers upon the virtually adopted person eligibility to be appointed as personal representative of the estate. Close reading of the various authorities, however, suggests that virtual adoption should be extended to confer such eligibility upon the virtually adopted person.

The Third District Court of Appeal has stated that, “what can be enforced by such an action [virtual adoption] is the establishment of filiation where the child can be shown to have been virtually adopted.” As such, the virtually adopted child should be treated under the intestacy statutes as any other child of the decedent.

While scarce, courts have recognized applications of virtual adoption status to issues outside the immediate scope of the intestacy statutes. For instance, in Williams v. Dorrell, 714 So. 2d 574 (Fla 3d DCA 1998), the Third District Court of Appeal reasoned that a virtually adopted person was entitled to the rights of an heir under the homestead provisions of the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes, ruling that descent of homestead property inures to the benefit of a virtually adopted child in the same manner as to natural or legally adopted children of an intestate decedent. Though not at issue in that case, presumably the protection from claims of the decedent’s creditors adhering to homestead property would likewise inure to the benefit of a virtually adopted child. Moreover, Georgia has recognized the virtually adopted child’s right to file a caveat in a probate action to protect the virtually adopted child’s rights. The Georgia Supreme Court stated:

[a] person claiming an interest in the estate of a testatrix, by reason of a virtual adoption, has such an interest in the estate as will authorize him to file a caveat to the will of the testatrix, when by the probate of such will he will be deprived of such interest. A contrary holding would deny to a party at interest in the estate, other than as heir, an opportunity to attack the probate, and thereby as against such party make the probate conclusive, thus defeating his interest in the estate of the testatrix.

The Florida Probate Code provides that preference in appointment of personal representative in intestate estates be given to “[t]he heir nearest in degree.” It is indisputable that a person deemed to have been virtually adopted is an heir in the second degree (behind the surviving spouse) for inheritance purposes. As an heir, it is a natural adjunct, then, that a virtually adopted person would hold the same position as any other heir with regard to appointment as personal representative. The court’s reasoning in Dorrell supports this conclusion. Furthermore, the Florida Probate Code provides that the first priority (after the surviving spouse) is “the person selected by a majority in interest of the heirs.” …

Combining all these disparate parts into one cogent whole, then, it could reasonably be stated that virtual adoption is intended to put the virtually adopted person in the same position as that of a person naturally born of or formally adopted by the decedent as that relationship is affected by the intestacy statutes. Such a status would necessarily include not just inheritance rights, but the rights, duties, and obligations inherent in administering the estate of an intestate parent, particularly the right to preference in appointment as personal representative under the Florida Probate Code.