' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: When a birth parent writes a will....

Monday, August 19, 2013

When a birth parent writes a will....

"I want to include my lost daughter Susan in my will equally with my other three children," said my good friend over lunch. "But my husband is against it. He's not her father and thinks it would be unfair to our children. Susan may inherit something from her adoptive parents. They are divorced, though, and she has little to do with them, and they have less money than we have."

Our conversation came to mind as I read a recent column in Money Matters. A woman wrote that her brother Bob had a daughter who was put up for adoption as an infant. The daughter, Christine, is grown and  she and Bob have been in touch for the past few years.

The writer's mother plans to leave her house to her two children, the writer and Bob. In the event they pre-decease her, their shares will go to their children, the writer's two daughters and Bob's daughter, Christine.

"This doesn't seem right," she complains. Christine has already inherited gobs of money from her adoptive grandparents and will inherit more from her parents. Meanwhile, my daughters and I have very little. If my brother wants to leave his own money to Christine, that's his business. But isn't it wrong for Christine, who's had almost no contact with my mother, to be a major beneficiary in Mom's will?"

Money Matters authors Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwartz sympathize with the writer. They write that, assuming Bob did not coerce his mother into including Christine, the writer should explain to her mother why she feels that her mother "should not be leaving a 50 percent stake in her home to Christine. You make a good case for why the scale of the bequest is inappropriate, and we hope your mother listens."

We disagree. The mother does not have to justify her decision to her daughter. No one owes anyone a bequest (other than the share spouses are entitled to under state laws). Surely, the mother is aware that her daughter has little money and that Christine has inherited substantial sums. She may be including Christine because she feels guilty about the roll she may have played in the adoption, and hope in this bequest to make up for that; and though the mother may not know Christine well, she may like Christine better than her other granddaughters. Regardless, it is the mother's decision on how she apportions her will.

First mothers that I know have approached the issue in various ways. Those without other children may leave all, or most of, their estate to the lost child. Lorraine made her daughter a beneficiary of her will before she knew who she was, hoping that because of the will she might be found, and thus know that her first mother never forgot her. Before my surrendered daughter Rebecca and I connected, I considered making her the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, thinking that the insurance company would have to find her, and that would give her the opportunity to know about me.

Some mothers have made all their children equal beneficiaries, as my friend wanted to do. Others have given their lost child a token gift--some family jewelry for example--but passed the bulk of their estate to their raised children. Others have given a small amount to each of their children and left most of their estate to charities.

I've also heard of parents of adoptive parents, the child's adoptive grandparents, leaving the adopted child out of their wills altogether while leaving substantial sums to their "blood" grandchildren. This is just cruel. We know of one story where a wealthy biological father, fully aware who his lost daughter was, explicitly left her out of his will, mentioning several times that she was not to be included. The adoptee is by no means wealthy herself and is raising several children. It's likely his wife, not the girl's mother, was behind this egregious act, but we do not know. We know of spouses of mothers who have surrendered children who do not want the mothers to leave anything to the child lost to adoption, despite a good reunion. We know of a spouse who did not want a recently reunited son of her husband's to be made known to her husband's father, for that would make her son, the "second" son, the second grandson, not the eldest. We did not ask, but we believed, it was due to the inheritance that might be lost.

First mothers may assume that if they don't have a will, their property will be divided among all their children. In fact, the property will be distributed according to their state's laws of intestate succession. (Intestate means having no will.) Because the relinquished child is not legally the child of the first mother, he may inherit nothing.

We have heard of stories of adopted children being told they did not have the right to inherit family jewelry and other possessions because they were not "blood." In fact, we know of one woman who learned she was adopted due to overhearing such a discussion about her adoptive mother's jewelry. Money can bring out the worst in people.

The one piece of advice to first parents--or anyone for that matter--thinking about what they want to have happen with their property after their death is to obtain the advice of an experienced lawyer. I wouldn't trust an online form to do the job. The time and money spent learning your options--wills, trusts, gifts, tax consequences--can assure that your wishes are followed.

Of course, there's no right answer to what to leave any of your children, lost to adoption or raised. Everyone has to look into their heart, consider the full impact of what heirs will feel upon learning who gets what, and decide what kind of legacy he or she wants to leave. A will may change relationships between the heirs generously included, or knowingly left out, or given only a token amount. Those who feel cheated are likely to harbor ill feelings towards those who are left generous bequests. Wills are strange instruments; in black and white, in cold cash and hard possessions, they may delineate the depth of good will and love, or lack of, towards another person. And their impact cannot be talked over or taken back, for their word is final. --jane  
We would love to hear the thoughts and experiences of our readers. (Lorraine adds a caveat here, as she and her husband did consult a lawyer who did not understand what they wanted to do, and the papers he prepared were screwed up.) 

Money Matters, "A Request Can Be Made To Change The Scale Of A Bequest"

 American Bar Association Guide to Wills and Estates, Fourth Edition: An Interactive Guide to Preparing Your Wills, Estates, Trusts, and Taxes (American Bar Association Guide to Wills & Estates) A user-friendly guide that contains everything you need to know about planning an estate and preparing a will. It is organized in easy-to-follow chapters with sidebars containing tips, checklists, and key information, encouraging you to begin the process quickly and easily.--Amazon
Order here by clicking on the title or book cover.


  1. It's quite a coincidence that you post this topic. My mother, who relinquished a daughter, passed away last month. I've met the sister two years ago and have some contact with her. My two sisters are not interested in meeting her. I'm the Executor of my mother's will which states that her estate will be divided into equal thirds. Since my step sister was not a child of my father, I don't think it would be appropriate to leave her 1/4, but do think that she deserves something. Her adopted parents are not nearly as financially secure as my parents were. I'm considering to give her a portion of my inheritance -- maybe $10,000? I don't want this to be considered that I am "buying" a relationship with her though.

  2. My existence was a secret my birth mother had hoped to keep from the man she married. He was not my birth father. However, a few years after they were married, the truth slipped out.

    He was a lawyer and he wrote their wills. With the knowledge that I was probably out and about in the world, he structured their wills to prevent any assets from ending up in my hands if I were to come in search of some family reward. In fact, there were assets to preserve.

    Meanwhile, the father of my birth father (my paternal grandfather) included me in his will. He left a small trust for me and my birth father's other offspring. Their mother was not my mother.

    My grandfather died in 1960. The bequest on behalf of my half-siblings and myself was to be made when my grandfather's second wife (not my grandmother) died.

    However, when she died in 2003, my half-siblings began a legal action to prevent me from inheriting my portion (one-quarter) of the trust that had been set up for us. The legal assault worked. I got nothing. Neither did my birth father.

  3. Another twist - the mother of my (adopted) daughter is in our will.

  4. Jane,

    If anyone in my birth family includes me in a will, it is my hope that they do not bequeath anything of monetary value- because I will sign it away. I don't want money. My desire would be to retain something of who they were, not something of what they had. Get it?

    I would want time to make copies of family photographs, movie reels, or perhaps a journal if there is one. That is all. However, I do hope that my name is at least written in the will- to acknowledge my existence. It will be the only legally binding proof my descendants have they they belong to the family.

    Incidentally, I won't accept anything from my adoptive family, either. I say that as the probable executor of their estate. My plan is to grab the movie reels and photo albums and have copies made. Then sell the rest and give the money to my adoptive brother. He needs it more than I do, and I don't need the headache.

  5. It's so sad. For most of us, it's not about the money.

    Not once have I ever (either prior to or post-reunion) contemplated receiving an inheritance from my biological family.

    It's sad to think that some of these reunions may be failing because our b-parents are getting older, and their spouses are thinking about possible monetary entanglements.

  6. I don't often comment but I saw this on the page of a firstmom I'm friends with on social media. I'm a adoptive mother.

    My daughter inherits almost everything. Should we pass away in the next 10-20 years, our family trust will manage the money. We've added provisions for educational expenses for her bio-parents and bio-siblings plus a small cash gift to her bio-siblings.

    Over time this will change. We plan to then just leave a bigger cash gift to each of her bio-siblings.

    Once we are gone, those are all she has left except some cousins on both sides that we aren't super close to, location or relationship-wise.

    The better her bio-family is doing, the better for everyone. I know 'better' is a subjective term and money doesn't make things better - but the chance at an education definitely does.

  7. Since my daughter was adopted, her daughter would almost certainly not be included as a legal heir if both my husband and I were to die without a will. Yet she has been a part of my life since she was born. Both he and I consider her an equal party (with his two children) as our heirs.

    I knew this post would garner all various stories. I am heartened to hear that some siblings out of their own good will want to include a bequest to the siblings who were relinquished. I am pleased to hear that from the adoptive family that included the first mother in their will. That is not only gracious, it is kind, as the mother [informed guess here] is probably not wealthy. Good adoptive parents, in a way, do also "adopt" the mother of their child.

    And to the adoptee who wants nothing of monetary value from either parents, first or adoptive,the question is why? You say that you would like mementos of your history, both natural and adoptive, but not anything of monetary value. To an outsider, who does not know you, it sounds as if you wish to turn your back on both families--yet you don't. You want proof of your heritage and connection. You don't want to be interested in money, but money is only the way we manage our lives, and there is nothing wrong in taking it.

    HDW: It is incredibly sad to think that some reunions may be failing because of spouses and other children who suddenly fear dividing up the pot, but I am sure that it is very very real. The other day on Facebook someone posted that she had found her father, and initially he was open to meeting her, but he "wanted to talk to his wife and [other] daughter." A few hours later came back the word that "they" were against it. I remember dealing with my daughter's father, who never met her--what does she want, he would ask me. To [fucking] meet you, I would answer....I keep assuring him that she did not "want" anything else. But he had other problems and they never met. Then he died.

  8. I would want my daughter included in any estate. Whether she wants it, what she would do with it, etc. is her business.

    I do not see this as a "right" that my parented children earn rather as a reflection of me and who I was in life (or wanted to be) and who I want to be in death. That is a mother who loves, cares and shares for ALL of her children despite the fact she was only allowed to parent two of the three.

  9. I included my son equally with my 3 raised children. My husband supported my decision.

  10. I included my first son in my will from when he was a few years old, long before he found me and even before his brother, whom I raised, was born. When my second son was little, my main concern with the will was not the monies (there then were none), but rather who if anyone would raise this young child if I suddenly died. But when he a teenager and my first son found me, I worked out what seemed a fair will--1/4th to my first son, since his adoptive parents would probably be leaving him a good sum, 3/4th to my second son, who had no other inheritance--and this now stands. But my first son recently has insisted that he wants all the money to go to my second son, who has less income. But my second son doesn't feel that's fair to his brother. This makes me proud of them both.

  11. Lorraine,

    I have witnessed too many situations where fights over money tear families apart. I have no desire to be part of that. There is no amount of money worth sacrificing my family over.

    In addition, I am well aware that there are people in both of my families (birth & adopted) who see me as something less than a complete member of "their family". Those same people would surely challenge any legal wills in court, and they'd have some chance of winning. With a judge's decision, my status as "less than" becomes more than a position born of ignorance or avarice. It becomes legally binding.

    And what if I win? Well, I've still lost, haven't I?

    The only thing I have ever wanted was my family. It took 20 years to find them. I won't throw it all away over money. You're free to disagree. It's your blog. I'm only giving you my perspective as an adoptee.

  12. My husband and I went a long time without a will. If we had both died without one, my relinquished son wouldn't have received anything, since he isn't "legally" mine. Unless my hub's son had shared, which I believe he would have, without us telling him to.

  13. I think this is all something that will break down to an individual level. I cannot have anymore children. I got a tubal after Z's birth. And both the daughter I am raising and Z are listed as beneficiaries to my retirement plan in the event of my passing and as time passes and things improve, I will also have her included in other things such as a portion of the life insurance and whatever else I may eventually put into a will (I collect a lot of weird and random things). The daughter I am raising will not grow up thinking she is entitled to it all.

  14. Another adoptive mother here who is including bio family of daughter in our estate plan and also detailed in the plan our desire for the open adoption relationship to continue in the event of our untimely passing. We chose guardians that would respect and honor our daughters rights to her full family.

  15. Java Monkey, you have to do what you think is right for you. I was not instructing you, just feeling that maybe there was another way to think about your situation. But clearly I did not know all the facts or understand how both of your families react to you.

  16. I am adoptee. Both my adoptive parents are dead, and I have already received my inheritance. I don't want any other inheritance from my birth mother.

    At the time my father died, there was much ugly backbiting between his four heir children (1 bio and 3 adopted) and our stepmother. My older sister, also the only bio child, was named executor. My stepmother warned me that my sister had told our father that she deserved more than the rest of the children because she was the only blood heir. My sister never gave indication to me that she felt that way, so and I am left to wonder if my stepmother was trying to stir up trouble.

    My two adopted brothers are extremely suspicious that our sister did not divide up our father's assets evenly. They also accuse our stepmother of squirreling away some of our father's valuable possessions.

    I don't know if any of the accusations are true. I am resolved to stay out of it and am content with what I was given.

    There is no way in the world I want to go through this again when my birth mother's estate is divided. If she leaves anything to me, I am going to give it back to her raised children. If they won't take it, then I am giving it all to charity.

  17. Thanks to all of you for commenting. I have to admit I was surprised to hear from adoptive parents who are including their child's natural mother in their estate plans. This is something I had not considered when I wrote this piece. It's wonderful to know these families have come together and that they care so much for each other.

  18. I have left my daughter who was adopted at birth, the same as her siblings, she is entitled to a portion of our estate, some of my personal belongings, and anything else. They all have equal shares if anything were to happen, She is very much a part of our family, even though we have not seen her for 26yrs... you must do what you feel is right.

  19. Should my husband and I die, we have set aside money specifically our son's guardians to visit with his first mom/family. It is stated that this money is to be used for plane tickets/hotel rooms/car rentals to visit her or for her to visit them. We have made this very clear also to his (potential) guardians and they support that plan. The money should be enough to support several visits a year. Of course, we have also set aside money for our son (he is our only beneficiary).

    We spent a long time discussing whether we should leave money specifically for his first mom. She's had a lot of trouble with money in the past and has a track record of making very poor financial choices. In the end, we set aside a small amount for her that can be used as she sees fit. We've also included a small amount that can be used for her education.

  20. I haven't made a will yet, but certainly intend to leave something to my son. I have been having some health problems this year and also must provide for another family member who needs help, but in the meantime I have some of those'in trust for' bank accounts just in case I "shuffle off this mortal coil" The medical bills could very well take it all away. Maybe I should just refuse all treatment. Maybe I should make a trust or something. Does anyone know if those legal zoom wills are valid?

  21. Anon,
    I don't know what a "legal zoom will" is but I wouldn't rely on any form you get off the internet. Take a look at the American Bar Association book I included at the end of my post or another highly rated book on planning for distributing your assets. Then talk to an experienced attorney. It's worth a few dollars to know you've set things up so that your wishes will be followed.

    You may not need a will, a trust might be better, or perhaps you don't need anything. An attorney can help you look at all your options.

    Hope this helps.

  22. Money equals power and control. Money is used to hurt, money can be used to exert power over others. If the money is given fairly with good intent and no bad feelings then all is good. If it is given and produces ill intent, jealousie and the power to hurt someone...keep it. Far to often someone is suppose to act a certain way in order to be "worthy" of receiving it. If they don't then they are shut off. Control at its finest. Money can be used to degrade someone as in the many examples of adoptees not getting the family brooch as they are not "blood" or the biosibs feeling they are not worthy because they are interlopers and "after the family money" and not truly part of the "real" family as they were raised by others.

    I an truly grateful that my dad was frugal and was able to leave us a decent inheritance as HIS children. Also grateful that I never expected anything from my biomom, but was able to pick any pictures or momentos that I wanted. Of course my biomom really didn't have a lot of money.

    How many times I have heard from people not involved in adoption make comments to me that I was just after my biofathers money.....don't know the guy, could be be pauper.... but because i am an adoptee i am just after his money. ITs so hurtful, so degrading and makes me feel like a criminal of some sort...Just because HE didn't step up to the plate(known fact) and I want to know my heritage. I am considered, at first glance a gold digger of the worst kind.

    I would say to try to keep money out of it...its saves a ole loots hurt feelings and pain.

  23. Dpen and others who have heard someone say that you, the adopted, are just "after the money"--
    How crass, how cruel. They are speaking for themselves. It has never ever occurred to me that anyone would even think that about someone who want to know their heritage, let alone say it.

    Maybe you could respond with: "Well, I guess we know why you are interested in your own family." And let it go at that or walk away. There is no reason to be polite to someone like that.

  24. My Mom left me a small inheritance. I divided it between my grandchildren and started a college stock fund for them. When subsequent grandchildren came along I did the same thing. When I met my son and his three children, I started funds for them. Every little bit helps...education was a "big deal" in my family. At least I could pass on something of what was important to me.

  25. I'm an adoptive mom to a sweet four year old in a fully open adoption AND an adoptee in reunion. My husband and I did our will when our daughter was 7 months old. We both have student loans running out of our ears so the thought of leaving any money to anyone right now is laughable! :)
    We did however, put specific statements in our will that the open adoption is REQUIRED to be continued. My parents are in great health and so they would raise her if something happened to us and then next in line are my best friend and her husband. We have had extensive conversations with both parties about how important it is that our daughter continue a relationship with her birthfamily without stipulations. We have drilled it in their heads that it is to be a priorty relationship.
    On a side note, I wonder if anyone else in open adoption had the same issue we had with my daughter's first family in regards to the will. When I told my daughter's firstmom about our will and how I felt we protected them as well as we could in it, it actually caused a rift between us for a short time because she became very angry that we weren't going to "give our daughter back" to them in the event that something happened to us. I tried to be sensitive when she became angry and tried to explain that I had to do the same thing I would do if she were my bio daughter. Another reason that we chose the guardians we did is because we know they would raise her as a Christian whereas, her firstfamily would not.
    Has anyone else out there experienced this? I've often wondered if I was wrong, and that maybe they should be her guardians if something happened however, my heart tells me that we made the right decision. I would love to hear others input on this particular issue with wills. Thanks!

  26. I'm really moved by those adoptive parents who have included their child's natural family in their will. I think that shows genuine love and respect for their child.

    Personally, I made my will out to my son, way before we ever met again. It was unthinkable that I wouldn't. Now we're in reunion.

  27. Aimee,
    I can't say you're wrong in selecting your good friends as guardians for your adopted child rather than his first family in the event you cannot care for him. You know the situation best.

    One the other hand, I'm wondering if you considered that it might be easier for your child to adjust to being raised by his first parents rather than biological strangers.

    As I recall, CUB (Concerned United Birthparents) has advocated for laws that would require a child be returned to his first parents in the event that the adoptive parents cannot or do not wish to continue to raise the child. I know of several cases where this would have been the best course.

    In both cases the adoption was closed. In one, the child had disabilities and was placed in an institution; in another, the child "acted out" and was placed in a foster home. It's a shame the adoptive parents didn't contact the adoption agency and ask it to determine if the child could be placed with the first parents.

  28. Jane,
    I have considered that. I mean, they are her mom and dad too, they just aren't raising her. I think maybe the fact that I am an adoptee plays a big part in my decision. I am SO attached to my adoptive family both immediate and extended. I identify with them more than I do with my biological family. I have a great relationship with my bio family but it's just not the same. I guess if you're not adopted, it's hard to understand that. If something had happened to my parents as child, I would have been DEVASTATED if I were removed from my family and given back to my bio family. Let's be honest...if that were to happen, most bio families wouldn't feel an obligation or need to continue the "open adoption" in reverse. My daughter is SOOOO attached to her grandparents...my parents, the ones we've chosed to raise her. To rip her away from them would be cruel in my opinion, just as I would NEVER take my daughter away from her first family. Adoptive parents aren't the only ones who adopt a child, the grandparents do, as well as friends and extended family. They matter too because the child becomes a part of a much bigger family than just an adoptive mom and dad. Honestly, I don't think there would be an easy answer to this particular issue in open adoption but I do think that your use of "biological strangers" negates the love and bond that forms in families regardless of DNA. I know that not all are so lucky, but it's commonplace in my family. We very much emphasis the importance of genetic relatives in our lives but our relationships with genetic and non-genetic family are not differentiated.
    My husband and I agree that if my daughter ever WANTED to live with her first family, that we would NOT stand in her way. And if that is what she wanted to do if something happened to us, then her guardians wouldn't stand in her way either. I wish there was an easy answer to this but I don't think there is or ever will be. I would love to hear other adoptee/adoptive parent views on this.

  29. Adoptee Heiress, why do you assume you would go through this again if your birth mother leaves you something in her will? It could happen but, why assume the worst?

    But it sounds like you do not have a good relationship with her since you would give anything left you away, as if it were dirty money. But then, maybe you really are a rich heiress.

  30. My biological father had died several years before I found my family. His wife kept his mother and I apart for years because she feared I would try to steal her daughters' upcoming inheritance on the occasion of her impending death.
    I was told by her that my grandmother wanted no contact from me.
    My father's wife never told her I had been found.
    I later learned from an uncle that my grandmother had searched for me and even hired P.I's at one time to find me.
    It seems so sad to me that my father's wife chose money for her children over the dying wish of their own grandmother.
    Some people just have no heart.

  31. Sarah,
    I wouldn't consider my birth mother's money dirty. I would give the money back because I don't want my bio half-siblings to have any hard feelings. I have not been as much a part of my birth mother's life as they have, and I've already received an inheritance. They may feel like they deserve the money more than I do, and they'd probably be right. In the past one of my half-sisters has expressed resentment that her mother paid for some things for me. At the time of her beloved mother's death, I want to spare her as much anguish as possible, and I fear that if I were given some of her mother's money it would stir up more resentment.

  32. I typically come here reading as an AP. Today you reminded me that I'm a step parent adoptee as well.
    This is a timely post as my husband and I need to do our will. I was happy to read what some APs have done and will consider whether or not something similar will work for us.

    It's also timely as it makes me realize I need to speak to my dad about his will. I'm not worried about grandma, dad will take care of me. But I don't know about dad's wife. I don't legally have any right to any of his estate as he's not legally my dad, but my ex-step adopted dad hasn't been in my life since I was 12. And my bio dad is now the only dad I truly know. I don't care so much about money, and I'd want his wife cared for, but she doesn't respect family heirlooms like grandma and I do. Some of those things are important to me - the chair my grandfather found on the beach from a shipwreck for example. It's memory and connection to my roots.

  33. A lot to think about in this article and the comments are sad and amazing. I would like to leave my small estate to support adoption reform maybe through establishing an education grant, or an outreach to women who need pregnancy support in LA state where I relinquished.



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