Who’s the Rightful Heir to This Family Fortune?

A few weeks after their aunt's death, the Nixon children received a letter from the bank explaining their father’s cousin had laid claim to the inheritance. Who should get the money? You be the judge.

By Vicki Glembokci
Also published in Reader's Digest Magazine August 2010

Signing williStock/Thinkstock

When their aunt Grace died, the Nixon kids figured they’d be coming into some cash.

Almost a century ago, in the heartland of Nebraska, their grandfather John Nixon had begun building a small fortune in the cattle-feed business that his father had started. It afforded him a residence in Omaha, a vacation home in Estes Park, Colorado, and the ability to set up a trust fund to support his family after his death.

Nixon died in 1965. As outlined in his will, his wife, Mary, was his sole heir. The will also stipulated that upon Mary’s death, what remained of the trust would be split between their two children, Grace and John Jr. When Grace and John Jr. died, their shares would pass to their spouses and eventually to their children.

When Nixon wrote his will, in 1964, only John Jr. had kids. Grace, 43 at the time, had never married. So Nixon added a provision: If Grace died without children, her portion would go to her brother and his family.

Mary died in 1980 and John Jr. in 1975. As expected, his wife and eventually his four children—Robert, Ken, Dianne, and Joanne—received what was left of his share. And when Grace died, in November 2006, John Jr.’s kids expected to get what remained of her share—around $600,000, which they planned to divide among themselves. After all, they were Aunt Grace’s heirs, since she had neither a husband nor children.

Or so they thought.

But a few weeks after Grace’s death, each of John Jr.’s children received a letter from Wells Fargo Bank. They couldn’t believe what they read. Another relative—their father’s cousin, Richard Daley—had laid claim to the inheritance. Daley, a retired orthopedic surgeon in Phoenix who was married with four kids, was also, to the Nixons’ great surprise, Aunt Grace’s adopted son. “That seemed crazy,” says Ken Nixon, now 60 and a pyrotechnics engineer in California.

Maybe not. It was no secret that Grace didn’t like her brother and his family. In 1985, she approached her cousin, Daley, to propose that she adopt him so she could help pay for his children’s education and also prevent her brother’s kids from inheriting more of the trust. She was 64; Daley was 50. He agreed.

Grace and Daley petitioned the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, where she lived, asking to have the adoption granted. In 1986, the state of California, which allows adult adoptions, approved the request. Grace instructed Daley to keep the adoption confidential, which he did—even from his own mother.

After the Nixons called Wells Fargo to protest Daley’s claim on the trust, the bank filed a petition in Nebraska’s Douglas County Court, asking the judge to make the official call: Which party is the legal beneficiary to Grace’s portion of the trust?

At a hearing in November 2007, each side made its case.

For the Nixons, it came down to this: Grace would have been prevented from adopting Daley in Nebraska, where John Sr. lived and where the trust was created, because most adult adoptions are illegal there. In addition, John Liakos, one of the Nixons’ attorneys, argued that Richard Daley could not have had two mothers at the same time. That, too, is illegal in Nebraska unless the birth mother gives up her rights. “This whole thing was a scheme to beat [the Nixons] out of their inheritance,” says Liakos.

Scheme or not, one of Daley’s attorneys, Heather Voegele-Anderson, argued that since the California courts found the adoption to be proper and approved it knowing that Daley’s mother was alive and had not relinquished her parental rights, Nebraska was obligated to recognize it. Plus, Nebraska had no laws denying adopted children their right to inherit. Furthermore, and most important, the will made perfectly clear that Grace’s heirs could include “persons legally adopted.”

Should Nebraska honor the adoption? Should Richard Daley get the inheritance? Were the Nixons victims of a scheme?

Next: The Verdict&nbsp»

  • Your Comments

    • Nick

      To say that the attempt was to defraud is subjective. Her intent could have been whatever her relationship was with her adopted son, the needs of his family, his being a doctor does not mean he didn’t need money. There could have been a foundation the doctor was setting up in Grace’s name (albeit a college fund ) the reason for and how he used the money are superfluous. Her will made it clear that her adopted son gets the money. I believe that this is a clear case of the equal protection clause being applied. When the Constitution is clear on a matter, there is little left for judges to decide. However, it is great grist for debate…I use it in my class all the time..

    • gtbmel .

      It seems that Grace should have got her share when her mother died in 1980. At that time it was her money and up to her to decide what to do with it. I don’t think she would be obligated to follow her father’s will at this time. If she died before her father then her father’s will would determine alternative people to inherit.

    • Sultry_Clue

      Ha. This is hilarious.

      I know it sounds bad on a purely moral standpoint, and perhaps even fraudulent in a way, but I can understand why Grace Nixon did it. She didn’t like her brother and wasn’t close to him or his family. So naturally she did not want her part of her father’s estate to go to him. In her shoes, as bad as it sounds, I might have tried to pull off the same thing.

      In any case, the offspring of John Jr. had absolutely no right to be making plans for their part of Grace’s estate. The adoption, however hilarious, was legal.

    • Ted A

      I think Ken Nixon is right. His grandfather is rolling over in his grave, but not for the reason he thinks. I think he would be ashamed of those kids for wanting more than their share of that money. They already got the share that belonged to John Jr. This share was Grace’s and she had the right to adopt anyone she wanted and leave the money to them. Her father provided for that. Shame on the Nixon kids for wanting to double dip.

    • adell

      Well, although it is a lot of money, and I can see why that would be upsetting, I wonder about the people who expected to get it. Did they love their aunt? Did they visit her, talk to her, help her out when she needed it? It certainly sounds like there was no relationship there, which I find very sad. It was her money and she had every right to give it to whomever she wanted. It’s just sad when money becomes so much more important than family.

    • Chris

      The case is clear. The adoption is legal. It is also clear the adoption was done with intent to defraud the estate. You can uphold the adoption while also preventing the estate from being defrauded and a halfway competent lawyer would present the full story and instead of just asking for a ruling on the adoption also ask for a ruling to prevent inheritance. The mistake is that the lawyer they hired fought to prevent the first but said nothing about the second.