Estate Planning in the Age of 23andMe
In recent years, many Americans have been able to find out more about themselves and their family by purchasing one of the dozens of DNA testing kits available on the open market. You may have even purchased a kit yourself from 23andMe or Ancestry.com. Most commonly people are looking for information on past relatives or to see whether they are the long-lost prince or princess of an exotic country. However, what happens when your DNA test results in finding relatives much closer to home? For example, you discover your father had a son 50 years ago - before he married your mother - that he never knew about?
This may seem like an episode straight out of daytime television (á la Jerry Springer), but it is happening more and more. The question becomes, what happens to your estate plan if this happens to you?
Review Your Current Estate Planning Documents
After you’ve gotten over the initial shock of discovering your newfound relative, the next step should be to review your estate planning documents. Special attention should be paid to the exact terminology used. For example, does your Will say, "I leave everything to my children," or does it specifically list the names of your children? Does your Trust include definitions for terms such as "children," "issue," or "descendants"?
The more specific the language used in your documents, the less likely a newly-discovered potential heir will be able to claim a piece of your estate.
It is also important to note that Connecticut law will provide some protection in certain situations, namely in regards to children.
Scenario #1: Discovering a Man has a Long-Lost Child
In the case of a man discovering a child he was previously unaware of, Connecticut law provides that such child can only inherit from the father if (1) the father has acknowledged in writing that he is the child’s father or (2) that the father’s paternity has been established by the courts. If neither of these has occurred, the father’s estate plan will not be disrupted by the newfound child.
Scenario #2: Discovering a Child Previously Given Up for Adoption
The rules are substantially similar in the case of discovering a parent or spouse gave a child up for adoption. Under Connecticut law, once a child is legally adopted, that child is deemed to have cut all legal ties with their biological parents. This means that the adopted child has no rights to any inheritance from their biological parents.
The Bottom Line
While discovering a previously unknown child may be an incredible shock, the good news is that it likely will have little impact on your estate plan. That being said, updating your documents upon the discovery of a child is highly recommended. A provision could be added to your Will or Trust to acknowledge that you are aware of the existence of the newly discovered child but have intentionally made no provisions for them in your estate plan. Such a provision could help to minimize the ability of the newly discovered child to make any claim against your estate.
Alternatively, if you want your newfound child to be able to inherit from you, you should revise your estate planning documents to say as much. This could help to prevent your other beneficiaries from arguing that the newfound child was not meant to receive a part of your estate.
The more clarity in your estate plan, the better.