Inheritance rights: The implications of illegal adoptions

AS an interdepartmental group examines the implications of illegal adoptions, Ann Murphy looks at the impact of inheritance rights on the people involved.
Inheritance rights: The implications of illegal adoptions

The issue of a person’s will can be clouded if one or more beneficiaries have been illegally adopted.

SOLICITORS specialising in probate issues are expecting a raft of enquiries from people affected by illegal adoption to establish if their inheritance rights have been affected.

The recent RTÉ Investigates probe into illegal adoptions linked to St Patrick’s Guild in Dublin has shone a spotlight on the area.

Now, an interdepartmental committee, set up by the Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman, is examining how the rights of people who were illegally adopted have been affected.

The examination will include inheritance rights.

Cork-based probate lawyer, Tim Bracken, said he has received queries in relation to how people’s inheritance rights are affected in situations where there has been no will made in the family in which they have grown up.

He said: “If a parent who is widowed or not married dies leaving children, the estate is divided equally between them or in the case of a child who died before the parent, then that child’s share is divided between the children of that child equally.

“For example, Mary dies intestate survived by four children and three grandchildren who are the children of her daughter Ann who died last year. Her estate is divided in five equal parts, one-fifth to each of the four children and one-fifth divided between the children of Ann.

“What happens if one or all of the children were adopted?

“If they were properly and legally adopted, they are the legal child(ren) of Mary and have ceased to be the legal child(ren) of the birth parents. However, if they have not been legally adopted they have no legal connection to Mary and are not entitled to inherit from her on intestacy.”

He added: “Proceedings may be brought by a child of a testator who feels that he was unfairly treated by his parent under the terms of the Will.

“The proceedings are brought pursuant to Section 117 of the Succession Act 1965. Proceedings under section 117 only apply on a testacy. It applies equally to an adopted child but if the adoption is false and not legal the child has no standing to bring such proceedings.”

Meath solicitor Neil Cosgrave acted for mother and son Tressa Reeves and Patrick Farrell when they sued St Patrick’s Guild (Incorporated) adoption society, which was run by the Sisters of Charity, and the State, arising out of her long search for him following his illegal adoption in 1961.

They settled their High Court action in 2018.

In a statement on his website, he said: “We are currently taking a significant number of similar cases in the High Court at present, seeking disclosure of all of data, documentation and files from the relevant adoption agencies and seeking to recover damages from the relevant adoption agency and the State.”

Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Earlier this month, Minister O’Gorman established an inter-departmental group which is currently examining issues arising for the individuals whose birth was the subject of an illegal birth registration in the St Patrick’s Guild files. He said the issues include inheritance, amending birth registrations, taxation, identity documents, etc, which span the responsibility of a number of Departments and offices.

He added: “This group will report to me with proposals within a two-month window, and I will continue to engage with my Cabinet colleagues on the matter.”

Minister O’Gorman appointed Cork-based Special Rapporteur for Children, Conor O’Mahony of UCC, “to consider the very significant complexities and challenges, including the deep ethical issues, which arise in relation to the issue of illegal birth registrations, and to propose an appropriate course of action.”

Mr O’Mahony told The Echo: “I welcome the Government’s decision to explore further the options for investigating the practice of illegal adoptions in Ireland. The independent review published has highlighted that there may be up to 20,000 records that warrant further investigation, as well as a further substantial archive of records in private ownership that was not included in the sample examined.”

He described illegal adoptions as “criminal offences and human rights abuses”.

And he said: “The State has an onus to make every reasonable effort to establish the extent of the practice and take steps to make information available to those affected and to rectify records where appropriate.”

He said it is important to acknowledge the considerable challenges presented.

He continued: “The intention of those who falsified records was to conceal the truth, and it may be that they will have succeeded in this aim in a substantial number of cases.

“No review, however structured, would be able to claim to have identified every case of illegal adoption. There are also considerable challenges of scale, which must be balanced against practicalities and the imperative to conclude any investigation within a reasonable timeframe (particularly given the age profile of some of those affected).”

But he pledged: “I intend to make every effort to present recommendations to Government that will allow for the truth to be uncovered for as many people as reasonably possible.”

Currently, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties is urging people to contact their local TDs and senators to lobby for the provision of birth certificates to people who have been adopted.

The ICCL has just completed an examination of the recently published Mother and Baby Homes Report, which also shone a negative spotlight on the area of births to women who became pregnant outside of wedlock.

The ICCL said: “To vindicate the right to truth, the state must investigate the entire system of incarceration of unmarried mothers and their children and establish exhumation and inquest systems where necessary. It must also immediately provide information about identity to survivors, as well as investigate the circumstances around destruction of testimony provided to the Commission.”

Directly relating to illegal adoptions, the ICCL said: “Given the evidence that adoptions were done outside of a system of regulation or law, and, in some cases, without the informed consent of the mother, there is a need to shed much greater light on this system.

“Many survivors of illegal adoptions have been calling for a comprehensive investigation into the system for years and continue to do so.”

The council is calling on the government to “initiate a wider independent investigation into all individuals, agencies and bodies that were involved in the abuse of mothers and children and, particularly, in the system of illegal and forced adoptions in Ireland in the 20th Century.”

The ICCL said any such investigation should be survivor-centred, guided by human rights law and standards, comprehensive in its scope and powers and transparent, including by ensuring proper and appropriate recording, analysis, archiving and access to the evidence it gathers.

It added: “To vindicate the right to reparation, the State should provide a generous and uncomplicated compensation scheme which would include healthcare, housing and other appropriate supports.

“And to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again, the State must memorialise those who died or suffered, keep public records and engage in public education around what happened.

“Importantly, it must also provide human-rights focused inspections of all places of detention and residential care.”

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