There’s an interesting and really somewhat unusual case out of Maine this past week. You can read either the press account or the actual opinion, but I’ll also summarize it here. I actually think this ties in rather nicely with some of the recent posts I’ve done on adoption.
Olive Watson and Patricia Spado were a lesbian couple. Watson is the daughter of Thomas Watson, Jr, a former president of IBM. As such, she was part of a very wealthy family.
Watson and Spado were together for 12 years or so. During that time, Spado quit her job and moved in with Watson. While they primarily lived in New York, they had a vacation home in Maine that the visited each year.
Spado was financially dependant on Watson and understandably Watson wanted to protect Spado in the event something were to happen to her. For a heterosexual couple the obvious move would have been to get married. But of course, that wasn’t possible for Spado and Watson. So Watson decided to adopt Spado.
This is the first unusual point. Obviously the relationship between Watson and Spado was nothing like a parent/child relationship. A marriage would have been more obviously suited to the relationship between the women. But like marriage adoption does create legal “family” relationships between people and provides legal protection for a financially dependent person. Thus, even if it did not capture the nature of the relationship between Watson and Spado, it served some of the purposes at hand.
New York, where Spado and Watson spent most of their time, did not permit adoption under this circumstance. Apparently Maine did. So Watson adopted Spado in Maine in 1991.
Alas, within a year, the women split up. This brings to the fore a critical difference between marriage and adoption: You cannot terminate an adoption. While couples break-up with unfortunate regularity, parents and children do not have this option. Parenthood is, after all, permanant. So though Watson and Spado broke up, Spado remained Watson’s child, albeit it possibly an estranged one.
Now perhaps, absent the great wealth of the Watson family, the story ends here. It’s odd to think of Watson and Spado leading their lives as (estranged) mother and child, but so it might have been. However, remember that Olive Watson was the daughter of Thomas Watson, Jr. Her adoption of Spado made Spado a grandchild of Thomas Watson, Jr. Thomas Watson died in 1993 (not knowing of the adoption) and his wife died a year after. There are apparently substantial trusts to be divided among his grandchildren. (Perhaps this is what is called a “generation-skipping trust” but I don’t know anything about that, really.) Spado claimed a share.
I’m not sure why all this took so long to reach the Maine courts, but the trustees from the Watson estate sought to deny Spado a share of the trust. While there may be other legal issues (way beyond my expertise) one thing they tried lead to this case–in 2005 they sought to annul the Maine adoption. If they could undo that adoption then Spado is no longer a grandchild of Watson and has no claim to a share of the trust.
This is the second unusual (and important) point. If you look back on this blog you will see any number of instances where someone might want to challenge the propriety of an adoption. (I’m thinking particularly here of instances where a second-parent adoptionsecures the rights of one parent and the two parents struggle over the child after they separate.) While there are a number of cases in which the the efficacy of the adoption in a second state is questioned (though never successfully), it’s extraordinary to go back and try to annul the adoption in the state where it was conducted. Parenthood is, as I said, permanent, and thus adoptions typically cannot be undone.
The attack on this adoption is called a collateral attack, conducted long after the adoption was finalized. The trustees relied on a narrow exception to the permance of adoption–asserting that Watson and Spado committed fraud, claiming to live in Maine when they did not, and that the court in Maine was without jurisdiction, which is to say without power, to enter any order in the case.
While the lower court in Maine was willing to annul the adoption, the Maine Supreme Court was not. And if you read the opinion, you can see why. In order to serve their purpose, the relationship created by adoption must be a secure one. People cannot run into court years after an adoption is completed and attempt to undo it. Whatever the individual equities might be here (and I really don’t know what they might be), they are less important than the greater public policy–adoption confers parenthood and parenthood is permanent.
The trust question is really a separate one and will return to the Connecticut courts, which is where the trust litigation is being carried on.