‘He wanted nothing to do with me’: I discovered my biological father through Ancestry.com. Am I entitled to a share of his estate?

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I will try to make a very long story short. At 66, I found out quite by accident via Ancestry.com that my father wasn’t my biological father. Nearly everyone involved is dead now, so getting answers has been difficult. The gist is that when my biological dad (he was 18, my mother 16) was confronted with fatherhood, his mother shipped him out of state (it was the early 1950s) and my mother was married off to an older family friend. 

My mother’s partner “stole” me when I was 2 and I never saw my mother again until I was an adult. I lived a very difficult life with an abusive stepmother and a mostly absent “dad.” Fast forward through lots of lies and stories until the big surprise — the revelation that the DNA wasn’t adding up. I found out who my biological father was through a cousin I didn’t know I had. After a brief denial, he fessed up that yes, he knew about it. 

‘Here is a man who spent his adult life telling others how they should live up to their responsibilities, and yet he never did.’

Turns out, he lived less than 100 miles from me, and he wanted nothing to do with me. He did not give a reason. His sister, my biological aunt, did contact me, and we had lunch a couple of times before he had her put in a home due to Alzheimer’s disease. Now I can’t reach her. 

My biological father died suddenly. He was a very wealthy man. He was an attorney who became a prosecutor and, I think, a judge. Everything, I’m sure, went to his wife and his two children who were born after me. My aunt told me his wife was the reason my biological father didn’t want to know me. 

Do I have any rights to what he left behind? What bothers me most is that here is a man who spent his adult life telling others how they should live up to their responsibilities, and he never did.

The Other Son

Dear Other Son,

Given the often short statute of limitations for contesting wills, which can vary from 120 days to two years, depending on the state, it pays to be proactive. It’s likely that the moment has passed. It also does not sound like you were adopted by the father who raised you, but if you were, that could complicate the matter further. When a person is formally adopted, their right of inheritance is commonly transferred to the adoptive parents and would not apply to a biological parent.

Even if you were within the statute of limitations? It may be that your father made a will and left his estate to his wife, in which case it would be up to her to remember you in her own will, which — from what you say — would be unlikely to happen. Probate law varies from state to state. In New York state, for instance, the spouse receives the first $50,000 of intestate property and half the balance, while the rest goes to the children. 

The fact that your biological father was a lawyer and judge is a bitter irony, but it’s not surprising. If a person enjoys a high-profile job where they get to judge other people and hand down life-changing decisions, it stands to reason that they will be as comfortable doing the same outside of the courtroom, particularly if it means protecting their own public image. There are good teachers and bad teachers and good judges and bad judges — and, yes, good judges can be flawed people, too.

Sharing a portion of your father’s estate would dignify your experience as a long-lost son in legal terms, especially given that you were not recognized or given the respect you deserve.

And if your father died without a will? In California, which is a community-property state, the spouse inherits all of the deceased’s community property and one-third of their separate property, while the children inherit two-thirds of their separate property. Community property is deemed property that is acquired during the marriage. (Obviously, joint bank accounts would have gone to your biological father’s wife in their entirety.)

Making a claim on a biological parent’s estate is complicated. Regina Kiperman of RKLaw, an estate-law firm in New York, says a nonmarital child can inherit from their father if “the father, during his lifetime, acknowledged paternity by signing a document which meets certain requirements set forth in social-services law” or “if there has been a court-ordered determination of paternity during the father’s lifetime.”

Other ways of establishing paternity as outlined by Kiperman include: “Paternity has been established by clear and convincing evidence, such as genetic marker (e.g. DNA test) or evidence that the father openly and notoriously acknowledged the child as his own (e.g. obtain a letter from one of the father’s friends that confirmed that the father declared the person to be his [son or] daughter).”

I’m truly sorry. I’m sorry you were taken from your mother and did not meet her until years later. I’m sorry your biological father did not want to see you. If he were a stronger man, he could have gone against the wishes of his wife. I’m sorry the relationship with your newfound aunt came to such an abrupt end. And I’m sorry that your half-siblings and other family members did not reach out to you.

It does not sound like you were formally adopted, but if you were, that could complicate the matter further.

The law firm Antonelli & Antonelli had a client named “Alex” — who was born to an unmarried couple — who filed objections to his half-sister “Ina’s” administration petition because she failed to include him in the will and to formally notify him of her application. In that case, however, the father had claimed his nonmarital son as a dependent on his tax returns, which obviously made the case for paternity much easier. 

That case had a happy ending. “Alex approached this situation from a position of strength. He established himself as an heir — entitled to inherit and to serve as administrator. His siblings then became reasonable,” it added. “They agreed, rather quickly, that Alex was an heir entitled to inherit and that Ina and Alex would serve as co-administrators. This solution saved time and money; and it put Alex in the best position to protect his inheritance.”

Sharing a portion of your father’s estate would dignify your experience as a long-lost son in legal terms, especially given that you were not recognized or given the respect you deserve. The money would also be nice. It would be a dish best served cold (and on a silver platter). It would probably make your life easier, allowing you to pay off student loans or provide a down payment on a home.

But remember that there are many things an inheritance won’t do. It won’t give you the time back and restore the character or life of your biological father. It won’t undo the past. It won’t heal your heart and soul from the rough ride your young self had to endure in life. But you can do that all by yourself. 

We all have an “inner child” who needs to be seen — and children who are adopted or not recognized by their parents likely experience this more than most. You can take pride in having become the person you are today, despite the cast of characters who made this more difficult. You have persevered. You have maintained your dignity, made yourself vulnerable and opened yourself up to be loved by your half-siblings and biological father. 

Let them have their inheritance and their life. They are the ones missing out on getting to know you — wonderful you — rather than you missing out on their company. So do what your father did not do during his lifetime: Take that small act of kindness from your aunt, the woman who recognized you and gave you the time that others did not, and return it to other people in your life in spades.

Readers write to me with all sorts of dilemmas. 

By emailing your questions, you agree to have them published anonymously on MarketWatch. By submitting your story to Dow Jones & Co., the publisher of MarketWatch, you understand and agree that we may use your story, or versions of it, in all media and platforms, including via third parties.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

More from Quentin Fottrell:

Do children get 529 accounts in a divorce? My in-laws opened two plans for our kids, but their marriage is on the rocks. 

I’m only interested in zero risk’: I’m inheriting $100,000. Is a 5.5% CD a good rate? Where else should I invest?

My sister squandered our parents’ millions, asked me to give her $10,000, then made me a tempting offer. Should I take it?

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