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Adoption Cuts Off Automatic Inheritance From Grandmother

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Aleen Russell died in Kentucky in 1996. She never got around to writing a will, but Kentucky’s law of “intestate succession” provided a simple plan for distribution of her estate. The $160,000 she left would be divided equally among her surviving children. If any child of hers had died before her, Kentucky law (like that of Arizona) provided that the deceased child’s share would be divided among his or her children.

Ms. Russell’s daughter Flossie had in fact died before her mother. In 1971 Flossie and her husband were killed in an automobile accident, leaving three orphaned children. Two of the children, Barbara and Greg, were adopted by their father’s parents. The third child, Beverly, was adopted by her mother’s sister Rosalind Tuck. In a sense, Beverly remained Ms. Russell’s granddaughter (but through her “new” mother), but Barbara and Greg were no longer her grandchildren.

Kentucky’s law of intestate succession is clear. Once an adoption is completed, the relationship between the child and his or her biological parents is completely severed. The adopted child has no right of inheritance “through” those biological parents, and so Barbara and Greg would receive nothing from their biological grandmother’s estate.

The adoption of Barbara and Greg was actually completed in Tennessee, however, and the rules in that state are different. Under Tennessee law Barbara and Greg would still be entitled to inherit from their biological grandmother’s estate.

Barbara and Greg made a novel argument to the Kentucky courts. Because the U.S. Constitution requires every state to give “full faith and credit” to the laws and rulings of every other state, they said, Kentucky should be required to treat a Tennessee adoption exactly as it would be treated in Tennessee. They also pointed out that the public policy reason for the Kentucky law (making sure that the adoption created “a new family”) shouldn’t apply in the case of an adoption by one set of grandparents after the parents’ death.

Both arguments failed. Although the Kentucky trial court upheld the right of Barbara and Greg to inherit, three levels of appellate courts ruled the other way. Kentucky’s Supreme Court ultimately struck their claim to inheritance and ordered distribution of the estate to the surviving children—with no share to go to Flossie or her children. Pyles v. Russell, February 22, 2001.

It is important to recognize that none of the Russell family’s legal problems needed to arise. If Ms. Russell had written a will, she could have decided whether to include her grandchildren or not. The intestate succession rules only kick in when there is no will.

Arizona law is like Kentucky’s provision. Barbara and Greg would not have received any part of their natural grandmother’s estate if she had died in Arizona. The result would have been different if the adoption had been by a step-parent; special rules apply in Arizona for such a circumstance (see “Sons Inherit From Father Even After Adoption By Step-Father“).

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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.