Lankford v. Wright
374 N.C. 115, 489 S.E.2d 604 (1997)

  • Lankford was born and unofficially adopted by her mother’s neighbor (the Newtons). She lived her entire life acting as if the Newtons were her true parents.
  • Mrs. Newton had prepared a will, but it was damaged, so when she died, the will was declared invalid.
  • Lankford filed for a declaratory judgment declaring her to be the heir of Newton’s estate. Newton’s administrator (Wright), and Newton’s other relatives filed to block the declaration.
  • The Trial Court granted Wright’s motion. Lankford appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Lankford had never been officially adopted as per North Carolina State law.
    • Lankford argued that there was an equitable adoption, but North Carolina common law does not recognize equitable adoption.
      • Equitable adoption is similar to common-law marriage, where people act as parent and child even though they never make it ‘official’.
  • The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed.
    • The North Carolina Supreme Court found that the State should adopt the doctrine of equitable adoption.
      • Equitable adoption protects the interests of a person who was supposed to have been adopted as a child but whose adoptive parents failed to undertake the legal steps necessary to formally accomplish the adoption.”
      • Elements necessary to establish equitable adoption for inheritance purposes are:
        • An express or implied agreement to adopt.
        • Reliance on that agreement.
        • Natural parents giving up the child.
        • The child living with the adoptive parents.
        • The adoptive parents taking care of the child.
        • The adoptive parents dying intestate.
  • In a dissent it was argued that the North Carolina legislature had quite clearly established guidelines for adoption and inheritance and the courts should follow them.
    • In addition, it was argued that a contract to adopt a child is not a contract to devise or bequeath property to that child.
  • Equitable adoption is really only applicable to inheritance situations. It isn’t used for other family law issues.
    • Remember, a person who has been equitably adopted can inherit from an adoptive parent, but cannot inherit through as adopted parent.