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Bove v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co.

filed.: March 5, 1959.


Author: Goodrich


The question in this case is who is entitled to the proceeds of a federal employees' group life insurance policy. The contesting claimants are the insured's mother and his daughter who, prior to his death, had been adopted by his divorced wife's new husband on January 26, 1950.The adoption took place with the father's consent. The district court decided in favor of the mother, 164 F.Supp. 808 (D.N.J. 1958), and the daughter appeals.

The insured's name was Harry La Bove. He was a federal employee and came under the Federal Employees' Group Life Insurance Act, 5 U.S.C.A. §§ 2091-2103 (Supp. 1958). The statute provides that payment is to be made to the person surviving at the date of the insured's death in several succeeding classes. 5 U.S.C.A. § 2093 (Supp. 1958). The first has to do with the person designated by the insured. The insured in this instance did not designate anyone. The second in line is the surviving spouse of the insured. In this case he left no surviving spouse because he was divorced from his wife and had never remarried.

It is the third and fourth classes which create the controversy here. The third is "the child or children of such employee." The fourth is, in the absence of anybody taking under the first three, "the parents of such employee."

What makes the problem in this case is the adoption in New Jersey of Mr. La Bove's minor daughter by her stepfather on January 26, 1950, to which the natural father consented.Does this adoption rule her out as the "child" of her natural father within the meaning of the relevant provision of the federal statute?

Although the rights arise from the provision of the United States statute, we take it that the applicable law to determine whether Francine Kasser is to be considered her natural father's child for the purpose involved here is to be settled by state law so far as applicable.

"The scope of a federal right is, of course, a federal question, but that does not mean that its content is not to be determined by state, rather than federal law. . . . This is especially true where a statute deals with a familial relationship; there is no federal law of domestic relations, which is primarily a matter of state concern." DeSylva v. Ballentine, 351 U.S. 570, 580 (1956).*fn1

This general statement is borne out by the sixth provision of the section of the statute above outlined. Reference is there made to "other next of kin of such employee entitled under the laws of domicile of such employee at the time of his death."*fn2

The New Jersey adoption statute of 1954, which was in effect at the time of the death of Harry La Bove, is couched in very broad terms as shown in R.S. 9:3-17 under the heading "Public Policy."*fn3 More specifically, in 9:3-30, which describes the effect of adoption, the language is definite and farreaching. The statute provides:

"A. The entry of a judgment of adoption shall terminate all relationships between the child and his parents, and shall terminate all rights, duties, and obligations of any person which are founded upon such relationships, including rights of inheritance under the intestate laws of this State; . . ."*fn4

Argument for the minor claimant suggests that the New Jersey legislature has endeavored to repeal the laws of biology, that such a result is impossible to achieve, and that it is unconstitutional to try it. We do not think the legislature is to have any such purpose ascribed to it. No doubt the statute cannot in all situations be applied literally. The relationship of blood between the natural parent and the natural child still persists, of course, despite any number of legislative words and acts of adoption. Thus, if the natural parent and the natural child should marry after the natural child has been adopted by somebody else, we cannot think that the marriage would be any less incestuous because of the adoption.*fn5 But the act quite obviously proposes to create so far as possible a place for the adopted child in the new family. And we think it equally clear that it is designed, so far as possible, to cut off the previous legal relationships of the adopted child with its natural parents who gave their consent to its adoption by others. The New Jersey statute provides that Francine, the natural child of Harry La Bove and the adopted child of Sidney Kasser, may not claim as a child a share in La Bove's estate if he had died intestate.*fn6 It tends strongly to prove, likewise, that she cannot prevail in this case.

The appellant argues, however, that the Act of 1954 is not applicable, that the Act of 1902*fn7 is applicable and that the 1954 statute preserved all vested rights under the 1902 law.*fn8 This point does not help us with this case. There is no vested right in a child to share in its parents' estate for we do not have forced heirship in this country. The child may be cut out of a will at the parents' pleasure. The child's claim upon intestate succession is determined by the law in force at the death of the parent as indeed are the rights of anybody else who takes from another by intestate succession.*fn9 So, indeed, is the common law as to the validity of a will; it speaks as of the date of the death of the testator. So here it is clear to us that the applicable New Jersey law is that in force at the time of the decedent's death on February 4, 1957, and that the 1954 statute gives or limits whatever rights Francine may have. She has no rights as a distributee of her father's estate and she has no rights as a "child" under his life insurance policy.*fn10

The judgment of the district court will ...

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