Whether a child can inherit from his adoptive father after the father's parental rights
were terminated and whether a prior award of child's benefits can be reopened and
Deborah L~ R~ (Claimant's mother) applied for child's insurance benefits for William
B. R~ (Claimant) on the wage record of Donald L. W~ (wage earner or W/E). W/E died
on January 1, 2003 and Claimant's mother filed for benefits on January 21, 2003. At
the time of the application, Claimant's mother provided a birth certificate and an
adoption order to show that Claimant was W/E's adopted son. She was married to Wesley
L~ when she applied for benefits.
On May 11, 2004, Mr. L~ and Claimant's mother divorced. In April 2005, Claimant's
mother filed for mother's benefits as a surviving divorced spouse on W/E's wage record.
She submitted copies of her divorce decrees from both marriages. When reviewing those
documents, the local office discovered that W/E's parental rights over Claimant had
been terminated by mutual consent in the December 15, 2000 divorce decree.
When W/E's parental rights were terminated, Claimant could no longer meet the legal
definition of a child for Social Security purposes. He was not the natural child,
a legally or equitably adopted child, or a stepchild at the time that his mother filed
an application for child's benefits. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.354 (2004). In reaching this
conclusion, we considered whether Claimant might be considered the "child" of the
wage earner under 20 C.F.R. § 404.355, which states that a child may be eligible for
benefits as the insured's natural
child if you could inherit the wage earner's personal property as the natural child of
the wage earner under state law. Claimant was not W/E's natural child. The only other
eligibility option available for Claimant was proof that he is still considered the
adopted child of the wage earner under Mississippi state law. The question of state laws on inheritance
would not be an issue. 20 C.F.R. § 404.356 (2004). Instead, the issue would be whether
Claimant was dependent on the wage earner as a legally adopted child at the time of
his death. 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.360, 404.361, 404.362. Since W/E's parental rights were
terminated, including his obligation to support Claimant, and no evidence of dependency
presented with the application for child's benefits, there would be no entitlement
to child's benefits under any of the statutory or regulatory provisions that govern
legally adopted children.
The local office has stated that the applicant recently made some assertions that
her son is still entitled to adopt from the wage earner despite the termination of
parental rights. Mississippi Code section 93-17-13(a) provides for inheritance from
an adoptive parent and states that:
(a) the child shall inherit from and through the adopting parents ... and that the
adopting parents ... shall inherit from the child, just as if such child had been
born to the adopting parents in lawful wedlock.
We could not find any Mississippi cases that specifically addressed the issues presented
in this matter. Therefore, using our best judgment about how Mississippi courts would
rule in a similar factual scenario, we have concluded that the Mississippi courts
would initially determine that the voluntary termination of parental rights in the
divorce was a legal revocation of the adoption. Support for that conclusion can be
found in the fact that the Claimant's name was changed back to William Bryan L~ R~.
While Claimant was legally entitled to inherit the personal property of the deceased
wage earner as an adopted child of the wage earner, it is our opinion that Mississippi
courts would also rule that the termination of the wage earner's parental rights,
when viewed as a revocation of the adoption, had the resulting legal effect of severing
Claimant's relationship with the wage earner and ending Claimant's ability to inherit
from the wage earner.
Furthermore, under Mississippi law, an adoption does not extinguish the right of the
adopted child to inherit from the natural parents. Alack v. Phelps, 230 So. 2d 789 (Miss. 1970). Therefore, we believe the court would also conclude
that Claimant would still be entitled to inherit from his natural father (in accordance
with state inheritance laws), but would not have any inheritance rights from the estate
of an adoptive parent whose parental rights were terminated. As a result, we do not
agree with Claimant's mother's conclusion that her son is able to inherit from the
W/E's estate under Mississippi law.
A reopening of the initial determination in this matter would be appropriate under
the provisions of 20 C.F.R. § 404.988(c)(1)(2004). This regulatory provision allows
the Agency to reopen an initial determination at any time if it was obtained by fraud
or similar fault. Another basis for reopening can be found in 20 C.F.R. § 404.988(b).
This section states that an initial determination can be reopened within four years
of the date of the initial determination based on "good cause" as defined in 20 C.F.R.
§ 404.989 (2004). The divorce decree is new and material evidence. This case also
involves a failure to provide pertinent documents resulting in a misrepresentation
of the applicant's status. See also 42 U.S.C. § 408(a)(4).
Claimant is not W/E's "child," because he does not meet the statutory definition of
a "child" for Social Security purposes. The original determination was based on erroneous
and incomplete facts because the applicant withheld important information that would
have supported a determination that Claimant is not a "child" as defined in the Social
Security Act. Therefore, a reopening of the initial determination awarding benefits
is permissible under 20 C.F.R. § 404.988.
Mary Ann S~
Regional Chief Counsel
Sharon F. Y~
Assistant Regional Counsel