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Adult Adoptions In Florida - Goodman Not the Last Word

Written by Jeffrey Skatoff • June 23rd, 2013

Probate Litigation,  Trust Litigation,  Guardianship Litigation,  Resources,  

In the infamous case of Goodman v. Goodman, John Goodman, a polo mogul in South Florida, was found to have committed a sham on the Florida court by not providing sufficient notice of the adoption of his adult girlfriend so that she could become a beneficiary of a family trust.  The adult adoption was declared void, not because the adoption of a paramour was against public policy, but because of the lack of required notice to the interested persons in the matter, his other children who would be adversely effected by the adoption. 

Goodman attempted to adopt his adult paramour, presumably so that he could reach assets in the family trust through her. Goodman was involved in a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol. The twenty-three-year-old driver of the other car, Scott Wilson, died as a result of the crash. At trial, Goodman was convicted of DUI manslaughter with failure to render aid and vehicular homicide. The court sentenced him to sixteen years in prison. Goodman would be facing an enormous civil lawsuit, which would deplete his other assets. In the meantime, however, Goodman's conviction was thrown out as a result of juror misconduct.  

The Goodman adoption was reversed because of an unusual Florida statute that requires notice of an adoption to all persons who may have a financial or other interest in the adoption.  

Section 63.182(2)(a) of Florida Statutes states, in pertinent part:

[e]xcept for the specific persons expressly entitled to be given notice of an adoption in accordance with this chapter, the interest that entitles a person to notice of an adoption must be direct, financial, and immediate, and the person must show that he or she will gain or lose by the direct legal operation and effect of the judgment. . . .

Given the absence of any notice, the appellate court was quick to strike the adult adoption.

Furthermore, we determine that the judgment entered in the adoption proceeding is void. This Court previously has stated that “[a] violation of the due process guarantee of notice and an opportunity to be heard renders the judgment void.” Cellular Warehouse, Inc. v. GH Cellular, LLC, 957 So. 2d 662, 666 (Fla. 3d DCA 2007); Shields v. Flinn, 528 So. 2d 967, 968 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988) (relief from void judgment may be granted [*8] at any time). This Court also has ruled that the failure to give due process notice and the failure to grant a necessary party’s motion to intervene are defects that can render a judgment void. Bernard v. Rose, 68 So. 2d 946, 948 n.3 (Fla. 3d DCA 2011).

The concurring opinion was a bit shorter and direct, and would have stricken the adult adoption on public policy grounds.

I entirely agree that the final judgment of adoption is a nullity. Even if the motivation and the means for securing it were not so reprehensible, I believe, as the New York Court of Appeals held in In re Adoption of Robert Paul P., 63 N.Y. 2d 233, 236 (1984), the adoption of a paramour is so contrary to the beneficent purposes of such an action that no such judgment can ever be sustained.

The most recent case addressing adult adoptions is Dennis v. Kline (4th DCA, June, 2013).  The Court was faced with three issues.  First, whether Florida permits adult adoptions.  Second, whether the Court should have granted summary judgment on the demand to rewrite the trust in question so as to preclude adult adoptions, and finally whether to grant Full Faith and Credit to the Pennsylvania Adoption Decree. 

Regarding Florida's rule on adult adoptions, the Court explained: 

We agree with the fifth district that “[t]he public policy of Florida expressly permits the adoption of adults.” In re Adoption of Holland, 965 So. 2d 1213, 1214 (Fla. 5th DCA 2007) (citing § 63.042(1), Fla. Stat. (2007)). Such policy is articulated through the wording of the Florida statutes, which provide, with minimal qualification, that any person, whether a minor or an adult, may be adopted. See § 63.042, Fla. Stat. (2011).

The Court further explained: 

In limited circumstances, the Legislature has codified its disapproval
of certain adoptive relationships, exemplified by the limitation on
adopting one’s spouse. See, e.g., § 63.042(2)(c), Fla. Stat. (2011) (stating that a married person may not adopt his or her spouse). However, unlike other states,8 once a valid adoption has occurred, Florida makes no distinction as to the extent to which an adult adoptee may become a  beneficiary in probate proceedings, nor does Florida set a line of demarcation as to whether the “policy” favoring adult adoption extends only to rights specifically identified by statute. 

The Court then walked back from this view to some extent, noting that a paramour adoption solely for the purpose of inheritance rights could be set aside as a sham. 

For example, in Rickard v. McKesson, 774 So. 2d 838, 839 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000), which was relied upon by the trial court, an eighty-eight-year-old childless man adopted his seventy-two-year-old homosexual partner to make the latter the beneficiary of a trust, depriving another of her beneficiary rights in the process. In invalidating the adoption, we found dispositive that the lovers  committed a fraud upon the court, as the adoption amounted to nothing more than a “sham to enable [the adoptee] to inherit trust funds which should have gone to” the other. Id. at 841.

The trial court granted summary judgment on the issue of modifying the terms of the trust to exclude adult adoptive children from taking under the trust.  The Court explained the Florida law authorizing such modifications to trust instruments. 

Section 736.04113(1)(b) authorizes a court to modify the terms of an irrevocable trust where “[b]ecause of circumstances not anticipated by the settlor, compliance with the terms of the trust would defeat or substantially impair the accomplishment of a material purpose of the trust.” If such grounds are established, a court  is authorized to modify the trust by, among other things, “[a]mend[ing] or chang[ing] the terms of the trust, including terms governing distribution of the trust income or principal or terms governing administration of the trust.” § 736.04113(2)(a), Fla. Stat. (2011). As for the evidence that a court should consider in an action under section 736.04113, subsection (3)(a) provides,

In exercising discretion to modify a trust under this section: (a) The court shall consider the terms and purposes of  the trust, the facts and circumstances surrounding  the creation of the trust, and extrinsic evidence  relevant to the proposed modification. 

The grant of summary judgment on the issue, without taking evidence, was improper.  

The fact issue that controls this case is the Settlor’s intent in creating the Trust. Generally, the intent of a party in creating a document is “‘a question of fact that should not be decided on a summary judgment.’” Hodge v. Cichon, 78 So. 3d 719, 723 (Fla. 5th DCA 2012) (quoting Sanders v. Wausau Underwriters Ins. Co., 392 So. 2d 343, 345 (Fla. 5th DCA 1981)). Here, the terms of the Trust unambiguously place no limitations on a “legally adopted” person becoming a beneficiary under the Trust.

Although the appellate Court reversed the grant of summary judgment, the court was clearly telegraphing how it thought the case would end up, by denying the request to modify the trust.

Finally, the trial court did not accept the Pennsylvania judgment of adoption under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, because Pennsylvania does not require notice to other persons in an adoption, unlike Florida, which requires such notice (as was dispositive in the Goodman case). After noting the limited exceptions to the rule requiring that Full Faith and Credit be granted, the appellate court ruled that the Pennsylvania adoption must be give effect in Florida. 

Pennsylvania’s absence of notice requirements for persons with a direct financial interest in an adoption does not render Pennsylvania’s adoption practice “repugnant”  to Florida. A state’s different view of which parties are proper or necessary in a lawsuit is not a basis for denying full faith and credit to that state’s judgment.

Florida probate lawyer Jeffrey Skatoff can be reached at (561) 842-4868.