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Inheritance disputes tend to be deeply personal affairs, often involving challenges to a person’s core identity or “status” as a family member. Past examples include cases turning on a person’s contested status as a lineal descendant (e.g., are you a “pretermitted” child (click here), or a validly “adopted” adult (click here, here), or a legitimate “descendant by blood” (click here), or a “posthumously” conceived child (click here)); or a person’s contested status as a parent (e.g., are you a “legally” recognized father (click here)); or a person’s contested status as a spouse (e.g., were you “legally” married (click herehere)). This case turns on a woman’s status as the “biological” daughter of her birth parents vs. her status as the “legal” daughter of her adopted parents.

Kemp & Associates, Inc. v. Chisholm, — So.3d —-, 2015 WL 477856 (Fla. 5th DCA February 06, 2015):

The backstory to this case stretches to the summer of 1960 when, as described by the 5th DCA, “a romance blossomed between J.K.T., a young, unmarried woman, and Teofil E. Shablowski.” So began a chain of events that led this young woman to the “Texas Mission Home & Training School, a home for unwed mothers,” her daughter’s adoption in 1961, and this daughter’s search decades later for her biological parents. Again from the 5th DCA:

[The romance] ended before J.K.T. discovered that she was pregnant. She never told Mr. Shablowski that she was pregnant, and they were never in contact again. Instead, she entered the Texas Mission Home & Training School, a home for unwed mothers, intending to place her child for adoption. A healthy baby girl was born to J.K.T. in January 1961. Shortly thereafter, that child was adopted by Thomas and Maxine Chisholm in accordance with Texas law, and named Lisa Lou Chisholm. Though J.K.T. gave the Mission Home Mr. Shablowski’s name and enough information to locate him, he received no notice of Ms. Chisholm’s birth or her subsequent adoption.

As Ms. Chisholm grew older, she became curious about her biological parents and eventually located J.K.T. With the information learned from J.K.T., and utilizing the services of a private investigator, Ms. Chisholm found Mr. Shablowski in 1997. Mr. Shablowski, unmarried and believing himself to be childless until then, acknowledged Ms. Chisholm as his biological daughter. They established a good relationship, had frequent telephone and written communication, and met in person twice before his death in 2010.

Whose daughter are you?

Shablowski was 77 years old when he died intestate, leaving no surviving spouse, legally-recognized lineal descendants (other than possibly Chisholm), parents, or siblings. Soon thereafter, Chisholm and a group of Shablowski’s distant cousins filed competing claims to his estate. Shablowski’s cousins argued Chisholm was entitled to 0% of the estate because she’d been adopted away in 1961. Under F.S. 63.172 and F.S. 732.108, an adoption terminates the legal relationship between the adopted child and her natural parents, so that for purposes of intestate succession the adopted child is no longer a legally-recognized lineal descendant of the natural parent. On the other hand, if Chisholm’s adoption were invalidated for any reason, her status would switch to sole surviving lineal descendant, meaning she’d get 100% of the estate under F.S. 732.103.

Chisholm argued her 1961 adoption was invalid because Shablowski, her biological father, wasn’t provided with prior notice of her adoption. While conceding this kind of notice wasn’t required under Texas law in 1961 (the same was true in Florida at that time), Chisholm argued it was required as a matter of constitutional due process. Notice to an unwed father of the pending adoption of his child has been required since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Stanley v. Illinois, 405 U.S. 645 (1972), a landmark case in which the Court held that the fathers of children born out of wedlock have a fundamental right to their children. In 1975 Florida amended its statutory notice requirements for adoptions under F.S. 63.062 in accordance with the Stanley decision, requiring notice to a putative father concerning a child’s adoption if he has acknowledged and supported the child.

Can you say “retroactivity”?

Chisholm’s argument hinged on whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1972 ruling in Stanley should apply retroactively to her 1961 adoption. If it does, she wins, getting 100% of the estate. If it doesn’t, she loses, getting 0% of the estate. Chisholm won at the trial court level. On appeal, her win evaporated, she now gets nothing. Why? Because the 5th DCA didn’t buy her retroactivity argument.

Ms. Chisholm would have us apply Stanley’s holding retroactively to challenge the validity of the Texas adoption judgment. We decline to do so. It is true that a ruling on an issue of federal law announced by the United State Supreme Court is to be given full retroactive effect in all cases “still open on direct review and as to all events, regardless of whether such events predate or postdate [the Supreme Court’s] announcement of the rule.” Harper v. Va. Dep’t of Taxation, 509 U.S. 86, 97 (1993). But, the 1961 Chisholm adoption case was closed long before the rule of Stanley was announced. And, the “event” here is Ms. Chisholm’s adoption, not Mr. Shablowski’s subsequent death.

Our decision is driven not only by constitutional precedents, but also by public policy considerations. “The state has a compelling interest in providing stable and permanent homes for adoptive children in a prompt manner [and] in preventing the disruption of adoptive placements ….” § 63.022(1)(a), Fla. Stat. (2010). Adoptive children also have a right to permanence in their adoptive placements, as adoptive parents have an interest in retaining custody of a legally adopted child. § 63.022(1)(c),(d), Fla. Stat. (2010). These statutes make clear that it is the Florida Legislature’s intent to “protect and promote the well-being of persons being adopted and their birth and adoptive parents and to provide to all children who can benefit by it a permanent family life.” § 63.022(3), Fla. Stat. (2010). Invalidating the 1961 Texas adoption judgment (or, adopting Ms. Chisholm’s more nuanced suggestion, refusing to recognize it) based on the lack of notice to the putative father, would substantially hinder the Legislature’s clearly stated goal of promoting the finality and permanence of adoptions.

Affirming the trial court’s judgment would permit Ms. Chisholm to inherit from her biological father, but would call into question the legal relationship between Ms. Chisholm and Thomas and Maxine Chisholm (and her siblings, if any). If a 1961 Texas adoption is not entitled to recognition in Florida, then adoption judgments under the laws of Florida and other states that did not require notice to putative fathers at the time of the child’s adoption, would also be of questionable validity. This would lead to increased litigation and disruptions to many families, both adoptive and biological. “The adoption decrees that have been entered without the consent of the natural father must number in the millions. An untold number of family and financial decisions have been made in reliance on the validity of those decrees…. [T]hose reliance interests unquestionably foreclose retroactive application of this ruling.” Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380, 415–16 (1979) (Stevens, J., dissenting).

An “insider’s” view:

For an insider’s view of this case, you’ll want to read this interview of one of the attorneys on the winning side of the case.