What is equitable adoption or adoption by estoppel?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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Equitable adoption (also called putative or constructive adoption) occurs in the situation where a parent makes certain promises or acts in a certain manner so as to create a contract between the parent and child. Equitable adoption occurs without a formal legal procedure, in other words, a parent can say or do certain things that result in the adoption of another person as his/her child even though there is no court order establishing the adoption.

For example, a parent could take a minor into his/her home, and act as if s/he is the parent of the child for many years, all without ever going to court to formalize this arrangement. In such a situation there is no court order which formally states that the rights and obligations of the natural parents have been terminated and that the adoptive parents must assume these obligations and rights. Instead of being a matter of law, the principles of equity hold this parent as if s/he had formally adopted the child.

Adoption by Estoppels happens when a parent tries to deny equitable adoption. If a parent has taken a child into his/her home, and acted as the parent of that child for a number of years, even without a formal adoption procedure, that parent is prevented from then denying parentage by adoption by estoppels. Because the child was not legally adopted, s/he cannot seek action in court; however, adoption by estoppels is a remedy that is available to the child, to claim adoption by the parent.

The legal doctrines of equitable adoption and adoption by estoppels typically arise when a person who took care of a minor child for many years dies. The decedent (person who has died) may have died without a will and the child presents a claim to all or part of the estate based on one of these doctrines. If the decedent died with a Will and the child was not mentioned in the Will, the child may still present a claim for a portion of the parent’s estate on the basis of being an omitted or pretermitted child.

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