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‘I grew up thinking we were the perfect family’: A DNA test revealed I was the product of an affair. Am I entitled to a share of my biological father’s estate?

I grew up thinking we were the perfect family. My parents were married for 60 years, and my siblings have always been very close. My mom passed away a few years ago. For fun, we all took one of those DNA tests and, shockingly, I found out that I was the product of an affair. 

While I haven’t been able to confirm 100%, I have a good idea of who my biological dad is through some mutual relatives and friends. I do remember him and his family. Here’s the kicker: He won’t discuss anything with me.

In fact, his first question was, “What do you want?” Honestly, I really wanted answers. I can’t get them from Mom and don’t want to break my father’s heart. I don’t know if he knows or not. He’s elderly and not well.

While my father — the one who raised me — is alive, I don’t know if I want a relationship with my half-siblings or not. It’s all very overwhelming. However, my biological father is also elderly and in poor health. 

My siblings have counseled me to consider what I may be entitled to as an inheritance, as this man is actually very well off, and always has been. Ironically, my parents purchased a home from him and his wife many years ago. 

I don’t even know what I may be entitled to, whether I want it or not, whether I want any relationships, etc. Can you help guide me on the financial side of this affair?

Confused

Dear Confused,

No family is perfect, but all families start out with the illusion of perfection.

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Sorry, Tolstoy.

Achieving perfection is an impossibly ambitious goal for any couple contemplating having children. At their worst, families can be the equivalent of an 18-year lockdown. They’re a group of people thrown together under one roof with a limited budget for an extended period of time. It can be hard to endure.

You have two challenges with a claim on your biological father’s inheritance. The first is proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are, indeed, his daughter. Secondly, assuming he is your biological father, you must grapple with the possible ramifications of his response to your contacting him.

Now that you have made yourself known to your presumed biological father — and, presumably, word has gotten around that you could be his biological daughter — he and his family may have the same thought you’re having, except in reverse: “Is she entitled to anything from this estate?”

He could specifically disinherit you and/or all of his biological children who were not born from his marriage. Hell, he could disinherit all his children, if he wanted to. However, if a person dies intestate — without a will — inheritance laws of the state apply. Beneficiaries include direct descendants.

Once upon a time, children who were born outside of marriage were denied inheritance under the law. But those laws were effectively overturned in 1968 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Levy v. Louisiana. I try to avoid the old-fashioned term “wedlock,” as it suggests some kind of open prison.

Once upon a time, children who were born outside of marriage were denied inheritance under the law. 

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If a court has not established paternity during your biological father’s lifetime, if he does not openly acknowledge you as his daughter before he passes away, and/or if it was not possible for him to do so while he was alive, you are left back where you started: DNA testing.

Under California law, for instance, “The court will not accept private genetic testing as evidence in a paternity case unless the test has been ordered by the court. If the court orders genetic testing, it will provide the named parents with the information they need to get the tests done.”

The question now is not so much “Do you want a relationship with your half-siblings?” but rather “Do you want a relationship with your biological father — assuming he is your biological father?” My advice is to answer that question and proceed on that basis, putting all thoughts of inheritance to one side.

It is obviously a traumatic and surreal experience to discover that your known father may not be your biological father. As you process the fact that you have not had a perfect family, brace yourself for the fact that any relationship with your biological father will also be less than perfect. But there is a strange beauty in that too.

Yocan email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com, and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

The Moneyist regrets he cannot reply to questions individually.

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