Whether the great-niece of an insured individual is his “equitably adopted child”
for purposes of determining her eligibility for child’s benefits and whether the insured
individual’s wife is eligible for mother’s benefits.
No. Because Washington does not recognize the doctrine of equitable adoption, the
insured individual’s great-niece is not eligible for benefits as the insured individual’s
equitably adopted child and the insured individual’s wife is not eligible for mother’s
SUMMARY OF EVIDENCE
R.J. was born in 2002, in Multnomah County, Oregon, to S. and B. However, she was
released from the hospital and into the custody of her great-aunt, Mrs. J. In 2003,
Mrs. J. and her husband, Mr. J., filed a Petition for Adoption in the Circuit Court
for the State of Oregon. Attached thereto were an adoption agreement and other pleadings
wherein the child’s natural parents surrendered, released, and relinquished their
parental rights. Mr. and Mrs. J. never completed the adoption process, however, and
in 2004, moved to the State of Washington.
Despite never completing the adoption, it appears that R.J. has lived with Mr. and
Mrs. J. her entire life and was raised as their daughter. A copy of her baptism certificate
names Mr. and Mrs. J. as her parents. Medical coupons were issues to Mr. J. for the
intended use of R.J. Letters from the natural parents indicate that Mr. and Mrs. J.
raised R.J. as a daughter and they intended for Mr. and Mrs. J. to adopt their daughter.
Applications are pending for child’s benefits and mother’s benefits based on the earnings
record of Mr. J., who died in July 2009.
The entitlement requirements for child’s benefits and mother’s benefits on the record
of an insured person who has died are interconnected. To be entitled to mother’s benefits,
the mother must have in her care “the insured’s child who is entitled to child’s benefits.”
20 C.F.R. 404.339. To be entitled to child’s benefits, the claimant must be the insured
person’s “child.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.350. One of several ways to be related to the insured
and be entitled to benefits as his or her “child” is to be the insured person’s “equitably
adopted child.” 20 C.F.R. § 404.354. A claimant may be eligible for benefits as an
equitably adopted child if (1) the insured had agreed to adopt the claimant; (2) the
adoption did not occur; and (3) the agreement to adopt is recognized under state law
so that the claimant would be able to inherit a child’s share of the insured’s personal
property if the insured died without leaving a will. 20 C.F.R. § 404.359. To determine
whether a claimant is eligible for benefits as an equitably adopted child, the Commissioner
follows the law of the state where the insured had his permanent home at the time
of his death. 42 U.S.C. § 416(h)(2); 20 C.F.R. § 404.359.
In this case, Mr. J. began the adoption process in Oregon
but was living in Washington when he died. Therefore, Washington law determines whether
R.J. is entitled to child’s benefits and whether Mrs. J., in turn, is entitled to
The doctrine of equitable adoption – also known as virtual adoption, de facto adoption,
and adoption by estoppels – is a judicially created remedy where the court grants
a person the rights of an adopted child for purposes of inheritance. Contrary to POMS
GN 00306.225B, there are no instances of a Washington court recognizing the doctrine of equitable
adoption. See In re Marriage of Thier, 841 P.2d 794, 799 n.5 (Wash. App. 1992) (observing that “no Washington cases recognize
a doctrine of de facto adoption”). In fact, in Washington it is well established that
the adoption of an heir is purely statutory, and can be accomplished only by strict
compliance with statute. In re Smith’s Estate, 299 P.2d 550, 553 (Wash. 1956) (citing In re Renton’s Estate, 39 P. 145, 148 (Wash. 1895)). There must be a formal court order for there to be
a lawful adoption. Fields v. Fields, 243 P. 369, 371 (Wash. 1926). Because Washington has not recognized the doctrine
of equitable adoption, R.J. is not entitled to benefits as Mr. J.’s equitably adopted
child and Mrs. J. is not entitled to mother’s benefits. Although neither R.J. nor
Mrs. J. are eligible for benefits under a theory of equitable adoption, R.J. may still
become eligible for benefits as the insured individual’s legally adopted child. The
Social Security Act (the Act) provides that a person may be deemed to be the legally
adopted child of an insured individual at the time of his death if the child was either
living with or receiving at least one-half of her support from the insured individual
at the time of his death and was legally adopted by the insured individual’s surviving
spouse after his death. However, a child may only be deemed to be the adopted child
if “(A) proceedings for the adoption of the child had been instituted by [the insured]
individual before his death, or (B) such child was adopted by [the insured] individual’s
surviving spouse before the end of two years after . . . the day on which such individual
died[.]” U.S.C. § 416(e); 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.356, 404.362. Therefore, if Mrs. J. were
to lawfully adopt R.J. as contemplated by the Act, R.J. could be eligible for benefits
as a legally adopted child and Mrs. J. could be eligible for mother’s benefits.
Washington does not recognize the doctrine of equitable adoption as a theory of inheritance
under intestacy laws. Therefore, R.J. is not entitled to child benefits as the equitably
adopted child of Mr. J. and Mrs. J. is not entitled to mother’s benefits.