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Adoption of Adult Niece Does Not Permit Double Inheritance

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It is possible in many states (including Arizona) for one adult to adopt another adult. In the most common instances, a stepparent will adopt his or her spouse’s adult child, often after having raised the child from an early age. Occasionally, however, adult adoption is used for other purposes.

Vivian Unsel, of Missouri, had no children. She was herself one of six children, and her father had left his interest in the family farm to her and her brothers and sisters. He had done so, however, by leaving them a “life estate” in the property, with the remainder interest (after the death of the last child) to be divided into six shares; each child’s share would then be divided among his or her children equally. Since Vivian Unsel had no children, her share would simply be divided among the children of her brother and sisters.

Vivian’s sister Lena had two children, including daughter Judith Daniels. Vivian decided that she would prefer her interest in the farm to go to Judith, and so she broached the idea of adopting Judith under Missouri’s adult adoption statute. Judith agreed, and the adoption was concluded in 1992.

Vivian Unsel died in 1996, and Judith made her claim to a one-sixth interest in the family farm. Most of Judith’s cousins then joined in a lawsuit seeking to have the inheritance set aside, arguing that the adoption was against public policy.

The Missouri trial judge disagreed, and found that Judith would inherit from her adoptive mother Vivian but not from her natural mother Lena. This would have the effect of giving a one-sixth interest in the farm each to Judith and her brother, rather than requiring them to split Lena’s interest when she died.

The Court of Appeals reversed that result. The appellate judges decided that if the adoption is allowed to stand Judith would still receive an inheritance from her natural mother Lena, and the adoption would therefore permit her to inherit two separate shares of her grandfather’s estate.

The court noted that the apparent purpose of the adoption was solely to permit Judith to inherit Vivian’s share of the farm. Judith did not live with Vivian, did not call her “mom,” and did not change her relationship with her natural mother in any way. Because of that, reasoned the judges, public policy requires that the adoption be ignored for purposes of distributing the estate. Vivian Unsel’s plan for getting her interest in the family farm to a favored niece was not successful. Unsel, et al v. Meier, et al, April 30, 1998.

Although there is no similar court case in Arizona, the adult adoption law itself is similar. Arizona permits the adoption of an adult stepchild, niece, nephew, cousin or grandchild. In some cases, foster parents can also adopt their foster children after they reach adulthood. The process is very simple, but does require an agreement signed by the two parties, and the consent of both of their spouses (if they are married and not legally separated). No consent is required from the natural parents of the adopted person; in fact, no notice of the adoption need be given to the parents. Arizona does require that the judge determine that the adoption is “in the public interest.”

Most often, adult adoptions are used to formalize a long-standing relationship between stepchildren and their stepparent. In order to adopt the minor children of a spouse, one must formally sever the parental relationship between the child and the natural parent. Since that is not required for an adult adoption, the process may be easier.

Arizona adult adoptees have the right to inherit from their new parents. Although Arizona law is not completely clear, they may also be in a position to inherit from their natural parents. At least in Arizona, adult adoption may be a way to have three (or more) parents simultaneously.

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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.

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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.