A couple of months ago, we posted an entry discussing the unsealing of adoption records in New York State, and the manner in which courts must weigh the State’s interests of confidentiality and maintenance of the adoptive parent-child bond against an applicant’s interests in unsealing his or her records. Prompting that discussion was Matter of Victor M.I., 23 Misc 3d 1103A (Sur Ct, Nassau County 2009), a case in which the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court permitted the unsealing of adoption records for purposes of proving the petitioner’s Hungarian lineage to establish Hungarian citizenship.
More recently, in Matter of B.F., 674, an application was brought before the Nassau County Surrogate’s Court to unseal an adoption file and obtain a certified copy of the order of adoption to determine whether the adoptive child was distributee of an estate. Specifically, in a proceeding for letters of administration in a Queens County estate, the petitioner sought to demonstrate that a sibling of the decedent had been adopted out of the family in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s.
In its decision, the Court discussed its discretionary power to unseal records upon a showing of “good cause”. Although it recognized that “good cause” has no particular definition, it noted that section 114(4) of the Domestic Relations Law provides a statutory basis for the unsealing of adoption records for obtaining medical history when serious health issues arise. In non-medical situations, it appears that an applicant has a higher burden to prove that his or her interest outweighs that of the State, as applications are granted only on rare occasions (Matter of B.F., 674).
The Surrogate granted the application after an analysis of the State’s interest in confidentiality for purposes of maintaining anonymity for the natural parents, protecting the bond between the adoptive parents and child, and shielding the adoptive child from potentially unsettling information. It was noted that these factors were largely irrelevant in this case (id.).
The adoptive child was born in 1927, so the Court opined that both the natural and adoptive parents were likely deceased. In addition, confidentiality was not an issue inasmuch as the applicant already possessed all information in the one document requested from the file. The court distinguished between the more typical cases, in which an applicant seeks identifying information, and the circumstances presented; the petitioner was aware of the adoptive child’s identity but simply sought a document to legally determine the decedent's heirs at law (id.).
As Surrogate Riordan recited, “[w]hether [good cause] exists, and the extent of disclosure that is appropriate, must remain for the courts to decide on the facts of each case” (Matter of B.F., quoting Matter of Linda F. M.,52 NY2d 236, 240 ). In view of this rule, it would be interesting to see how a court handled a petition with the same cause, i.e., a determination of a decedent's heirs at law, if the adoptive child were younger and some of the confidentiality concerns remained. But then again, if the applicant had enough information to pursue the inquiry, it is probable the he or she, like the applicant in Matter of B.F., already possessed identifying information.