When Adoption Shouldn’t Stand

I’ve been rather avoiding blogging about this story for well over a week now but since it just won’t go away, I’ll say something about it.   There must be hundreds of versions out there on the web by now and I’m just arbitrarily picking a couple to start with.   If you really want to know more, I’m sure you can poke around and find countless others.

John Goodman (not, I am quick to say, the fine actor who had a terrific role in Roseanne and The Big Lebowski) is a wealthy 48 year-old-man who stands charged with vehicular homicide in the death of Scott Patrick Wilson.   Wilson’s parents are also suing Goodman for civil damages.

This John Goodman has a couple of children who are in their teens.   There’s a substantial trust fund set up for the kids.  The money in the trust fund isn’t available to Goodman and so it couldn’t be taken into account in the civil lawsuit nor could it be awarded in damages.

Not long ago (well after the commencement of the lawsuit against him) Goodman adopted his 42-year-old girlfriend.  That makes her a beneficiary of the trust (because she’s a child of his now) and, as they’re a couple, it can effectively give him access to the money in the trust.

Now it is actually surprising to me to me that Florida law allows and adoption in this circumstance.   (Actually it is possible that it does not, as Goodman conducted the adoption in a different county so the court had no information about the pending lawsuit and the like.  There’s case law in Florida about when adoption is a fraud on the court and this might be such a case, as his teenaged children are now alleging.)

It’s not that I disapprove of adult adoptions generally.   But it seems to me that the sine qua non of adoption is the desire for or existence of a parent/child relationship, and obviously that is not what the parties want here.   Though there are feeble protestations to the contrary, it seems to me quite clear that the only purpose of this adoption is to ensure Goodman’s access to the assets in the trust.   That, it seems to me, is an abuse of a very important legal device and is a terrible disservice to all of us.

You might be wondering about incest–I did.  Some states would define a sexual relationship between adoptive parent and child as incest–and you can see why a state might want to do that.   But Florida does not.   Incest in Florida is only about blood relationships.  (I do wonder, however, if Goodman and his girlfriend have to do legal research before they travel.   Assuming it is valid, other states must recognize the adoption (we’ve discussed that lots of times on the blog) and so if they venture into a state with an incest prohibition that includes adoptive relatives they might be subject to that state’s law.)

As I’ve said, it does seem that the adoption could be subject to challenge.   As one of the stories I linked to mentions, his teenaged children have protested.   It does seem like there’s some fundamental fraud on the court.  As to the teens and perhaps also as to the court with the civil case–where Goodman’s actions could have the effect of hiding his assets after the commencement of the litigation.

But mostly it makes me think that somehow Florida has ended up with adoption law that isn’t really based on the core of what adoption should be.   I would have expected that any state’s adoption law was in some way tied to the desire for or existence of a parent/child relationship.   Apparently not in Florida.

There’s some terrible irony here.  Remember that in Florida for many years lesbian and gay people couldn’t adopt children even where there was no doubt that a functional parent-child relationship did exist?   That was the legacy of Anita Bryant.   (That prohibition was struck down in 2010 as the result of litigation.)  It’s galling to think that at the same time it was just fine with the state if heterosexual couples adopted each other for the basest of purposes.   That’s just a case of really perverse priorities.   Sigh.


16 responses to “When Adoption Shouldn’t Stand

  1. I wondered if you were going to mention this case. I read about it over on Slog (the blog site for Seattle’s “The Stranger”) and was appalled. I wasn’t aware, until I read your post, that his teenage kids were protesting the adoption. Good for them.

    Can an unrelated party contest the adoption? In other words, can Wilson’s parents contest the adoption or would they lack legal standing?

    • The question of who can contest the adoption is really the critical one. Some people are asserting (in those news stories) that the other kids themselves cannot contest the adoption. It’s true, of course, that if Goodman and his girlfriend had a child, that child would be a beneficiary of the trust and the teenagers could hardly protest that. But this isn’t that. If they say the adoption was done to allow corruption of their trust, essentially, I would think they do have standing.

      Beyond them the plaintiffs in the wrongful death case (the Wilsons) might have standing to challenge the trust or something like that. In a way they might rather get access to the trust than invalidate the adoption. What’s in the trust is (at present) not available to them. If they can use the faux adoption as an argument they might be able to get at trust assets. I don’t actually see how they can challenge the adoption itself. It didn’t do them any harm.

      And that’s ultimately the key standing question–were you hurt by the action. I’d say the other kids are in the best position.

      Can I just say, as a one-time lawyer and as a trainer of lawyers, I am appalled by the actions of Goodman’s legal team which I think has profoundly perverted the law even if their conduct is not itself criminal.

  2. You know it was not long ago that we had another chat about adult adoption and I said it sounded like a financial planning tool – a shifty, shady, back door, slippery little weasel kind of financial planning tool. You were just shocked and dismayed that I would suggest such a thing or even think that anyone would use adoption to get into wealth or out of debt. Sheesh. Its pretty common I guess now huh?

    • Fair point. The best I can say is that this is not the only reason for doing adult adoptions. I continue to believe there are legitimate reasons, but it is also clear that there are reasons that are not so legitimate. One would hope that people might pay attention to what the reasons in any given case are.

      • Alright, if you say so I guess I’ll keep an open mind but its sure tough when I think I already know the answer to everything.

    • I don’t see the issue here as a problem with adult adoption. I see it more as an issue with fraud. The adoption wasn’t started until after the man learned the trusts were excluded from the wrongful death suit. There also appears to be some desire to deceive the court by shifting to a different county for the adoption.

      At the time I entered into a DP agreement, CA did not provide that vehicle as a way to legally change my last name. Hence, I had to petition the court for a name change. One of the things I had to swear in the petition was that I wasn’t changing my last name as a way to avoid or trick creditors. I don’t see why similar inquiries couldn’t be made in the case of adult adoptions, thereby eliminating cases where the adoption is simply a way to avoid a judgment that may arise from an existing lawsuit.

      • I agree–it’s not that there is something wrong with adult adoption (in my view). It is just that, like many other court procedures, people can find clever ways to misuse them. Alas, we ought to recognize that at the outset and set some devices in place to guard against that. Had you lied when you answered the questions about creditors (no offense meant here–only a hypothetical) then that lie would have been the basis for invalidating the procedure later. It makes the fraud easier to spot. I don’t know anything about what Florida law requires or what was said here, of course.

  3. I reiterate my opposition to adult adoption. Adult adoption should only be available to confirm a relationship that previously existed in childhood. As you so accurately said, adoption is a relationship that is meant to create a parent-child relationship. A parental relationship involves bringing the child into existence and caring for it until it reaches majority. Other aspects of the relationship are but an outgrowth of that original relationship.

  4. On a separate issue, perhaps I am being influenced by my Jewish background on this, but I don’t believe civil penalties should be allowed when criminal penalties are applied. Certainly not in a homicide case. A person’s life can not be quantified in dollars and cents.

    • I’m not sure why this would connect up to being Jewish. It’s not unusual for things to be both crimes and torts (which means civilly actionable.) If you punch me out you commit a crime–because society has an interest in not having people go around and being violent. You might be punished by incarceration. But there’s also a specific injury to me. I might have medical bills. And I can sue you for those. Also, sometimes the prosecutor, for whatever reason, chooses not to go forward. That does happen and when it does, there’s nothing I can do to make her/him go forward. But that doesn’t stop me from claiming my damages.

      In this case, the parents who are suing can seek damages for the loss of their child’s life. That’s not something the prosecutor can do. And the prosecutor can seek to have the license revoked (minimally) but also seek jail time. There are different interests at stake.

      I’m trying to think if there is some different principle in Jewish law. I may just not know enough to be able to answer that.

      • I thought you might be interested because you have a Jewish name-
        there is a Talmudic principle on multiple penalties is discussed in Tractate Makkoth Page 13.

        The prohibition of compensation for homicide is biblical, found in Numbers 35 v 31

        • Quite right. It is interesting to me. Perhaps because I am law trained I have come to take it for granted that there can be both punishment and a remedy. These are seen as two fundamentally different proceedings. But the cite you offer suggests that this isn’t a universal view. Worth thinking about.

          There is a prohibition against double-jeopardy, which is being tried twice for the same crime, but there’s a lot of complicated law around that, too.

  5. What sort of quantifiable loss do parents have for the loss of their child? In the UK since parents have no right to support from a child there are no damages they can claim.

    • In the US, probably pain and suffering, and loss of companionship.

    • Generally speaking you wouldn’t get loss of support here either. (That could change, I think, if there’s a history of the child supporting the parent.)

      I think parents might have two types of damages. (Availability will vary state to state, case to case, and I’m not an expert.)

      1. The parents might be able to claim damages for pain/suffering the child experienced before death–damages that the child could have claimed had she/he survived. (Is this a survivor’s action?)

      2. The parennts might have a claim for the loss of the parent/child relationship–akin to a loss of consortium claim with a spouse.

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