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Justine Critzer, a Virginia woman, died in 2006. She died intestate—without a will—and had no close surviving relatives: No spouse, no children, and no living parents. Her closest biological relatives were two nephews and a niece—the children of Critzer’s biological sister, Mary Frances Kummer. This situation raises an interesting question: Who should inherit Ms. Critzer’s estate?

According to the recent ruling of the Virginia Supreme Court in Kummer v. Donak, Critzer’s niece and nephews are not her legal heirs, despite their being her closest surviving biological relatives. Their legal tie to Critzer—and the right to inherit from her estate—was severed when their mother was adopted out of the family at the age of 53.

In this column, I will explain this ruling and the sometimes-strange implications of an adult adoption.