The Man Who Adopted His Girlfriend…An Unbelievable Legal “Strategy”

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moneyThe law may not permit or forbid something, but consequences can snare you – or is it divine justice?  Consider: if you could legally adopt your girlfriend, would you really want to?

That was what 48-year-old Florida mogul John Goodman did. You remember him? In February, 2010, after a night of serious drinking, Goodman blew through a stop sign at 63mph and smashed his Bentley into a Hyundai driven by a 23-year-old heading home to his parents’ house.

The young man’s car ended up underwater in a canal and upside down, with him still strapped to his seat. He didn’t die from the crash; he drowned.

Goodman, however, had quickly left the scene and waited almost an hour to call 911.

Goodman was charged with vehicular homicide and DUI manslaughter.  It didn’t take long for a jury to convict him. (He’s supposed to be sentenced around the time you read this.)

But in the two years between the accident and the conviction, Goodman and his advisors got creative about protecting his assets, especially because the young victim’s parents had filed a civil suit against him.

Goodman and his advisors came up with a slick move.  Goodman had previously established a trust for his minor children from his first marriage. News reports said it held $300-$400 million.  A judge held that these trust proceeds would not be available to pay any judgment from the civil suit, so the income from the trust would continue to belong to the trust’s beneficiaries.

And the trust evidently left room for Goodman to add beneficiaries who were children of his.

So Goodman went to court and adopted a new child: his 42-year-old girlfriend, Heather.

A statement from his attorneys says Goodman did it so Heather could “continue his vision [for the Trust] and provide oversight, should he become unavailable to do so.”

They added that the girlfriend and Goodman signed an agreement, so that upon his death, 95% of the assets in the trust would go to his minor children.

In the meantime, though, published reports say Heather will get an income of around $5 million a year. That’s $200 million over the next 40 years.

The ex-wife — mother of Goodman’s children, ages 16 and 13 – filed suit to undo all this. (Reminds you of that 1911 song, “I want a sis, just like the sis, who sleeps with dear old Dad.”)

Get the bizarre picture? Goodman’s probably going to jail. His girlfriend is now his daughter. She’s going to share in the income and a portion of the principal in this trust which was set up for his minor children from his first marriage. The children, through their mother, want Girlfriend out of the trust.

You’re thinking, this smells like a plot to put the $300 million trust fund beyond the reach of the civil suit’s plaintiffs, the parents of the dead young man. It would leave Goodman and Girlfriend about $5 million a year to live on. Especially when he gets out of jail.

Then came a wrinkle: the parents settled their civil suit against Goodman, presumably for tens of millions of dollars. Now there were no potential creditors who could get a judgment against Goodman and mount an attack on the $300 million in the trust.

But where does the settlement leave things? Or better, what happens now to Heather the girlfriend/daughter?

Well, she’s still a beneficiary of the trust unless the suit by the first-marriage children’s mother succeeds in throwing out the adoption.  But on what grounds?  Florida law says any unmarried adult can adopt. Florida law also says that “Any person, a minor or an adult, may be adopted.”

It’s hard to imagine Goodman going into court to reverse its adoption order, on the grounds that “I didn’t really mean to adopt her.” That’s not what Wrongful Adoption cases are about.

Heather can also keep dating Goodman, even have relations with him; it won’t be incest.  The Florida criminal statute says you can’t have sexual intercourse with your sister, aunt, niece or any person to whom you are related by blood. And that means Goodman could marry anyone not in this description.

But what if Goodman and Heather break up? Now it gets tricky.

If either tells the other “I don’t want to see you any more,” they’re still father and daughter.

Or if they marry and then get divorced, not only are they still father and daughter, but would Heather be entitled to alimony and child support?

“Sure,” you think, “He’d make her sign a prenuptial agreement first.” But why would she even think about signing it? The $5 million-a-year as trust beneficiary is still hers.

The point of all this: sometimes being clever can boomerang on you. And while sometimes there may not be a statute prohibiting particular behavior, I like to think that there’s divine justice at work to make things right. So stay tuned, and let’s see if Heather stays with Archie – or was he Jughead?

Read the June 2012 update on this story.