A Florida Millionaire Adopted His 42-Year-Old Girlfriend. Isn’t that Incest?

Maybe. But it is also a good way to shield his fortune from the law.

John Goodman.
John Goodman’s attorney recommended that the he adopt his girlfriend, Heather Laruso Hutchins, thus making her a beneficiary of a trust he set up for his children

Photograph courtesy Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

in·cest (ĭn’sěst’) Sexual relations between family members or close relatives, including children related by adoption. Black’s Law Dictionary 776 (9th ed. 2009) (emphasis added).

On Feb. 10, 2010, Palm Beach air-conditioning mogul John Goodman allegedly ran a stop sign. His Bentley convertible struck a Hyundai being driven by Scott Wilson, a 23-year-old civil engineer. Wilson’s car landed in a nearby canal where the young man drowned. The near-billionaire then fled the scene. Police say Goodman had a blood alcohol content of 0.177, twice the legal limit. Not surprisingly, Goodman is being sued by Wilson’s parents for a great deal of money. (He also faces criminal charges that could put him in jail for 30 years).

Fortunately for Goodman, he had set up a very large trust (currently worth “several hundred million dollars” according to Goodman’s attorney) years earlier for the benefit of his two children, with distributions to be disbursed when each child reached the age of 35. West Palm Beach Judge Glenn Kelley ruled early in the Goodman civil lawsuit that the jury could not be told of the large trust’s existence because it might encourage jurors to impose a larger verdict against Goodman, despite the fact that he, in theory, has no control over the trust.

But what about Goodman?  If a jury verdict were to bankrupt him, would he be left penniless while his children continued to benefit richly from their trust income?  Enter the shrewd estate planning attorney who recommended that the 48-year-old Goodman adopt his 42-year-old girlfriend, Heather Laruso Hutchins, thus making her a beneficiary of the trust that Wilson’s parents cannot mention or touch. (In this arrangement, Hutchins is the beneficiary to roughly $70 million, which she would presumably share with Goodman, her doting dad-slash-boyfriend.) Elegant. Brilliant. And actually not that uncommon, it turns out.

Believe it or not, there is a growing trend in this country of adopting one’s adult lover or spouse for various reasons: to better guarantee the adoptee’s right to inherit directly from the adoptor; to keep other relatives from having any standing to contest an estate plan; or, as in Goodman’s case, to add a spouse or lover to a class of trust beneficiaries, allowing the “child” to inherit from the “parent.” Courts around the country are struggling to figure out whether these adoptions should be upheld or not.

The Goodman case is similar to that of the now deceased Olive Watson, who adopted her lesbian lover, Patricia Spado, in 1991. Olive was 43 at the time; Patricia was 44. (Yes, you can adopt someone older than you!) They had been together for 14 years at the time of the adoption but, as these things often do, the relationship soured about a year later. Patricia received $500,000 in cash from Olive but that was just the beginning. You see, Olive was the granddaughter of IBM co-founder Tom Watson, and daughter of Tom Watson, Jr., who took over the reins of IBM from his father in 1952. Watson Jr. established a hefty trust fund for the benefit of his children and grandchildren. And when Watson Jr. and his wife died, each of his grandchildren received large trust payments—estimated to be between $5 and $15 million—when they turned 35. Watson Jr. was unaware that Patricia was his adoptive granddaughter when he died and, in the eyes of the law, now a beneficiary to the trust. (The case led to a protracted court fight between Patricia and the Watson family that ended in a settlement that was never disclosed. Suffice to say, family members play rough when faced with the prospect of sharing their wealth with an adopted lover.)

But should we really care why one grownup is being adopted by another?  Should we require some sort of true parent or child-type relationship in order to adopt? Courts are split, with some jurisdictions judging harshly the morals of a paramour or spousal adoption, and some indicating that it is irrelevant absent a specific statute banning the practice. But most American courts that have faced adoption petitions from lovers have permitted the adoptions, unbothered by the underlying relationship between the parties. California, in particular, routinely grants petitions for adult adoption of gay and lesbian partners.

But before you go out and adopt your lover, there is one pretty serious repercussion you should consider: Are you committing incest? An incest conviction can result in serious jail time. And think about it: The adopter is having sexual relations with his or her legal child. Is that not incest?

For as long as anyone can remember, almost all cultures have outlawed at least some form of sexual relations and/or marriage between family members. Written prohibitions can be traced as far back as the Levitical Codes. Incest is a statutory crime that has been around in America since colonial times.

My research indicates that today at least 25 states and territories, representing over 140.8 million people (approximately 46 percent of the total population) in the United States, are subject to laws that include the adopted parent/adult child relationship within the definition of incest. That means a good many adult adoptions solve one legal problem but create an arguably worse one. Fortunately for both Goodman and his daughter/girlfriend, Florida is not one of these states. Otherwise, they might find themselves facing criminal prosecution, as have adopters and adoptees elsewhere.

But should this conduct be considered incest? It cannot be that it is a eugenics issue—the possibility of having abnormal children—since the sexual partners are not biologically related. Perhaps it is something more instinctual, something we think about in an almost subconscious way somewhere in the murky base of our brain. Generally, society has been confused on these issues throughout history and into the present day. Or are we asking the wrong question altogether? Should the inquiry instead be case-by-case whether a true parent-child relationship exists rather than distinguishing between blood or adoption?

The Goodman story would probably have been a one-day local tabloid wonder were it not for the fact that Goodman is now, at least in the minds of many, involved in an incestuous relationship with his daughter/girlfriend. Like it or not, the public imagination is more transfixed on the sexual prurience of Goodman’s case than on the hapless engineer he killed while driving drunk. For many people, it doesn’t seem right that when the Wilsons lost their son, Goodman gained a daughter.