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Oklahoma Supreme Court: A Child Placed For Adoption Inherits From Biological Parent’s Estate As A Pretermitted Heir

Under Oklahoma law, a child placed for adoption can inherit from a biological parent’s estate.  In Rogers v. Estate of Pratt, the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that a biological child who was adopted out could inherit as a pretermitted heir from his birth mother’s estate after a finding that the evidence was insufficient to show that his omission from the will was intentional.

The Facts of Rogers v. Estate of Pratt

Judith Pratt gave birth to a baby boy in 1962.  The boy was adopted shortly after birth by the Rogers, who named him Robinson.  Pratt had no other children.

When Robinson turned 18 in 2000, Robinson and Pratt reconnected.  The two established a relationship, and Robinson lived with Pratt for about 6 or 7 months after Robinson’s adoptive father died.  Robinson met Pratt’s sisters.  When Robinson moved out, he talked to Pratt a couple of times over the phone, and then lost track of her.

After Pratt’s husband died in 2007, Pratt went from being social and family-oriented to depressed and isolated from friends and family.

By the summer of 2017 Pratt was chronically ill with lung cancer.  Pratt’s house deteriorated around her and had no running water or working septic.

In July 2017 Pratt contacted a lawyer to do estate planning.  Pratt also moved in with a woman named Cerita Morley (Morley), so that Morley could help care for her.  The court described Pratt’s continued decline and Morley’s involvement in Pratt’s execution of her will:

Morley called the lawyer on September 6, 2017, to notify him that Pratt was in bad shape, was going to have a medical procedure, and that she needed her estate planning done by September 13, 2017. On September 13, 2017, Pratt appointed Morley and Morley’s daughter, Stacey Parker (Parker), as co-agents for durable power of attorney for healthcare.

On September 14, 2017, Pratt had a procedure to insert a mediport for lung cancer treatment. During this procedure, the doctor discovered a large protruding mass on her anus. Apparently, she had discovered it two years earlier, but never sought treatment due to embarrassment. On the way home from the procedure, Morley drove Pratt to her lawyer’s office where he delivered her a drafted will to her car. Pratt picked up the will from her car after having been under anesthesia and had been taking Xanax as well as oxycodone at the time. The next day, she executed her last will and testament in her bed at Morely’s house in front of two witnesses and a notary. Although she did not know the witnesses or notary, they all agreed she was aware of what she was doing, and that she appeared very competent.

 

The Will States That Pratt Has No Children

The Will that Pratt signed indicated that she had no children, and stated that “I have numerous other living relatives and that it is my specific intention that they or their heirs receive absolutely nothing from my estate, except as stated hereunder.

The will left the residue of Pratt’s estate to ten people in equal shares, including Morley and various members of Morley’s family.

Morley petitioned to have the will admitted to probate.

Robinson Seeks A Share Of Pratt’s Estate As A Pretermitted Child Under Oklahoma Law

Robinson filed an application for a share of Pratt’s estate as a pretermitted child, and also objected to the admission of the will on the grounds of lack of testamentary capacity and undue influence.  A trial was held.  The trial court held that:

  1. The will was not ambiguous;
  2. Pratt’s statement that she had no children was presumably false; and
  3. Pratt’s statement combined with a complete disposition of her estate evidenced an intent to exclude Rogers.

What Is A Pretermitted Heir In Oklahoma?

A pretermitted heir under Oklahoma law is a child whom a testator unintentionally fails to provide for or name in the will.  We have written about pretermitted heirs in Oklahoma before, here.

The Oklahoma pretermitted heir statute, 84 O.S. 2011 §132, is not a limitation on a testator’s power to dispose of his or her property. Rather, it is an assurance that a child is not unintentionally omitted from a will. It provides:

When any testator omits to provide in his will for any of his children, or for the issue of any deceased child unless it appears that such omission was intentional, such child, or the issue of such child, must have the same share in the estate of the testator, as if he had died intestate, and succeeds thereto as provided in the preceding section.

Does A Child Placed For Adoption Qualify As A Pretermitted Heir Under Oklahoma Law?

Yes.  A child put up for adoption is entitled to inherit from the estates of both biological and adoptive parents under Oklahoma law.  The termination of parental right negates the parent’s right to inherit from the child. The statute specifically provides that termination shall not “in any way affect the right of the child to inherit from the parent.”

How Is A Child Intentionally Omitted Under A Will in Oklahoma?

An intention to omit a child must appear clearly within the four corners of the testamentary document.

Intent to disinherit must appear upon the face of the will in strong and convincing language. It is also well established that the intent to disinherit must appear within the four corners of the testamentary document, and that extrinsic evidence is inadmissible unless ambiguities appear on the face of the will.

There are several ways that a person can clearly express the intent to omit to provide for his or her children under Oklahoma law, including:

  1. expressly state that the named child is to receive nothing;
  2. provide only a nominal amount for the child who claims to be pretermitted;
  3. name a child, but then leave them nothing;
  4. declare any child claiming to be pretermitted take nothing; or
  5. specifically deny the existence of members of a class to which the claimant belongs coupled with a complete disposition of the estate.

An Adoption Decree Coupled With The Will’s Statement That Testatrix Had No Children Rendered The Will Ambiguous

In this case, the testatrix stated that she did not have any children, that she was leaving her “other living relatives” nothing, and left her estate to specific beneficiaries.

Relying on precedent, the Oklahoma Supreme Court held that the existence of the adoption decree, coupled with the will’s false statement that Pratt had no children rendered the will ambiguous. Therefore, outside evidence was necessary to ascertain Pratt’s intent.

What Evidence Is Sufficient To Show An Oklahoma Testator’s Intent To Omit The Pretermitted Child?

In this case, the court acknowledged the evidence presented in the trial court by the witnesses to the will and the notary, who all testified that Pratt was competent and that the Oklahoma will was done the way she wanted it done.  The Oklahoma Supreme Court deemed this was insufficient to show an intention to omit Robinson as a beneficiary who could inherit from the estate, even though he was put up for adoption, because of the other evidence before the court, specifically:

  • Pratt knew she had a child and placed him for adoption;
  • Pratt sought Robinson out after the adoption and met him, and he lived with her for several months – yet, she denied having children in her will, and never told the lawyer of his existence;
  • Pratt never sat down with the lawyer and went over the drafts before she signed it, and there was no evidence that the lawyer went over the effect of the will;
  • The will was a “drive-by will;”
  • Pratt signed the will one day after surgery, and was on Xanax and oxycodone;
  • She was weak, had reduced cognitive abilities, and signed the will from her bed; and,
  • In addition to having surgery the day before the will, other evidence illustrated her deteriorating cognitive abilities, such as letting her home rot around her until it became uninhabitable, and withdrawing from her friends and family.

Therefore, the Oklahoma Supreme Court determined that Robinson, the child given up for adoption, qualified as a pretermitted heir and could inherit Pratt’s estate, stating:

The false statement that the testator has no children, coupled with the complete disposition of the estate was not dispositive of her intent when documents such as an adoption decree conflicted with such statements. Rather, an ambiguity existed which required parol evidence of intent. The evidence presented was insufficient to show an intent to omit the pretermitted child. Because we determine that the evidence was insufficient to show that the testator intentionally omitted Rogers as a pretermitted heir, we need not address whether the will was procured by undue influence. As the only child of the testator, Rogers takes Pratt’s entire estate according to the laws of intestate succession.  Consequently, the question of undue influence is moot.

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