Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Topic /161
In Re Adoption of Swanson

Citation. In re Adoption of Swanson, 623 A.2d 1095, 1993 Del. LEXIS 201 (Del. Apr. 27, 1993)

Brief Fact Summary. A 66 year old adult attempted to adopt his 51 year old companion for estate and tax purposes. The Family Court denied the petition because there was no preexisting parent-child relationship.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. There is a general disinclination to examine the motives for adult adoption outside of common sense limitations that are provided for in the Law’s grant of discretion.

Facts. Richard Sorrels, age 66, sought to adopt James Swanson, age 51, his companion of 17 years. The purposes of the adoption were to formalize a close emotional relationship and to facilitate their estate planning. They sought to prevent collateral claims on their respective estates from remote family members, and to obtain the reduced inheritance tax rate which natural and adopted children enjoy under Delaware law. The Family Court denied the petition on the grounds that there was no pre-existing parent-child relationship between them.

Issue. Did the Family Court err as a matter of law in formulating or applying legal principles when it interpreted the Domestic Relations Law to require a preexisting parent-child relationship?

Held. Although the Law confers reasonable discretion on the Family Court’s approval of an adult adoption, the Family Court erred in requiring a preexisting parent-child relationship.
The applicable Law states that if the petition complies with other requirements of the statute and if the person or persons to be adopted appear in court and consent to the adoption, the Family Court may render a decree ordering the issuance of a certificate of adoption to petitioner. The family court sue sponte concluded that the approval of adult adoption was contingent on a preexisting family relationship. However, it is reasonable to assume that the legislature was aware of the omission of this contingency based on other requirements within the Law and the extended length of time the Law has been in effect.

The use of adoptions for the purpose of improving the adoptee’s inheritance rights has been widely recognized, and there is a general disinclination to examine the motives of the petitioner even beyond the area of inheritance rights.

However, the New York Court of Appeals has disallowed an adult marriage when the two adults shared a homosexual relationship based on the theory that adoption is not a quasi-matrimonial device. However, this may fall under the common sense limitations allowed via the reasonable discretion permitted in Law. Such adult adoptions intended to foster a sexual relationship would be against public policy as violative of the incest statute.

Discussion. The Law provided some discretion by providing that the Family Court may grant the adoption. However, the Court found that the Family Court had overstepped its boundaries by finding a requirement of a preexisting family relationship.