Partner Adopted by an Heiress Stakes Her Claim

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by Pam Belluck and Alison Leigh Cowan
New York Times

March 19, 2007

NORTH HAVEN, ME — On an island liberally sprinkled with the affluent and well-connected members of such clans as Bush, du Pont, Rockefeller and Cabot, the Watson family occupies a special place.

The family, descendants of Thomas J. Watson Sr., the founder of I.B.M., owns more than 300 acres worth nearly $20 million on the northern tip of this sea-splashed idyll 90 miles northeast of Portland. Over four decades, various Watsons summering here have flown helicopters and other aircraft; driven antique cars and collected scrimshaw. The family has held an annual square dance at their compound, Oak Hill.

Recently, though, the Watson name has surfaced in a different context, a most unusual lawsuit. It concerns Olive F. Watson, 59, granddaughter of the I.B.M. founder and daughter of Thomas J. Watson Jr., the company’s longtime chief executive; and Patricia Ann Spado, 59, her former lesbian partner of 14 years.

In 1991, Ms. Watson, then 43, adopted Ms. Spado, then 44, under a Maine law that allows one adult to adopt another. The reason, Ms. Spado has contended in court documents, was to allow Ms. Spado to qualify as an heir to Ms. Watson’s estate.

But less than a year after the adoption, Ms. Watson and Ms. Spado broke up. Then in 2004, Ms. Watson’s mother died, leaving multimillion-dollar trusts established by her husband to be divided among their 18 grandchildren.

Re-enter Ms. Spado with a claim: Because she was adopted by Olive F. Watson, she said, she is technically Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s 19th grandchild and is therefore eligible for a share of the trusts.

In Maine, Watson trust lawyers have been trying to annul the adoption, saying that the law was not intended for same-sex partners and that the women did not really live in Maine, as they only summered there.

“The purpose of adoption is to foster a parent-child relationship, not a sexual relationship,” a lawyer for the Watson trusts, Stephen W. Hanscom, told the probate court in Rockland, Me., last month. “An adoption on that basis would violate public policy,” he said, and added, “There was a fraud perpetrated on the court because Miss Spado did not live in North Haven at the time of the adoption and the court did not have jurisdiction to grant it.”

In briefs, Ms. Spado’s lawyers have said that no fraud was committed, that an annulment would put other adoptions on shaky ground, and that the “courts cannot unravel longstanding judgments based on third-party aversions to personal lifestyles.”

In Greenwich, Conn., where Ms. Watson’s parents lived, the family’s trust lawyers have taken a different tack, saying that Mr. Watson, who died in 1993, did not even know about the adoption and never intended for Ms. Spado to be an heir. A guardian ad litem appointed to represent Watson grandchildren yet to be born or identified, Henry W. Pascarella, has called the women’s 1991 arrangement a “Mephistophelian maneuver of a middle-aged woman adopting her still older middle-aged female lover ‘as her child.’ ”

A Greenwich probate judge ruled against Ms. Spado in 2005, but her lawyers have appealed, contending that the trusts cannot “be construed to exclude a legally adopted grandchild of Mr. Watson solely because that grandchild was an adult at the time of the adoption.”

Many states allow adult adoption, but the laws were primarily intended for situations like a stepparent adopting a stepchild later in life, said D. Marianne Blair, an adoption expert at the University of Tulsa College of Law.

However, some same-sex couples began using the adoption process to establish financial security or inheritance for their partners, said Arthur S. Leonard, a professor at New York Law School.

“Before we had domestic partnership ordinances, before same-sex marriage or civil unions, back then there wasn’t much you could do,” Professor Leonard said.

Then as now, the adoption laws varied by state, and it is not known how many of these arrangements have been made.

In New York, some people sought adoption as a way to inherit a rent-controlled apartment from a same-sex partner, Professor Leonard said, but a 1984 court ruling said that same-sex couples could not use adoption to create legal family ties.

A state court in Delaware later allowed same-sex partner adoptions there, Professor Leonard said.

But in Connecticut, where the trusts were established, the law required the person doing the adopting to be older than the adoptee. The family’s trust lawyers have said in a brief filed in Maine, “this court should not allow homosexual couples from New York to use vacation time in Maine as the jurisdictional basis for an adoption that is disallowed in their own state.”

Ms. Spado has filed briefs saying that the arrangement was legitimate and that Maine law did not require them to live there year-round.

Experts said it is difficult to nullify an adoption but also hard to convince a court to rule against the intent of someone’s will.

Making this case even more complex is the fact that after the couple separated, Ms. Watson paid Ms. Spado a $500,000 settlement. Ms. Spado has contended that the money was to buy out her interest in property the women jointly owned, and should not affect the trusts. The Watson lawyers have said it was intended to put to rest further claims. After the settlement, however, Ms. Watson signed a letter affirming “our agreement that I have not and that I shall at no time initiate any action to revoke or annul my adoption of you.”

Ms. Watson declined to comment on the case, but a person close to her who insisted on anonymity, said Ms. Watson is “not in favor of Patty’s inheriting the money.” This person said, “If she herself could annul the adoption, she certainly would.”

Ms. Watson, who has a home in the Hamptons, and who has been a board member for Empire State Pride Agenda and other gay-rights groups, has in recent years lived in Miami with her current partner.

Ms. Watson adopted two infant boys, now ages 6 and 8, who are listed as grandchildren in the trust documents. (Ms. Spado is not.) The trust lawyers and those for Ms. Spado declined to discuss the case.

Ms. Spado, who lives in New York and California and works in interior design, has said in court documents that she “has relied for almost 15 years on the adoption in ordering her financial affairs,” and that she needed the money in part to help her ailing biological mother, who is 81 and who supports her desire to remain an adopted daughter of Ms. Watson.

Ms. Spado has said in a legal brief that the adoption had come about at the suggestion of Ms. Watson, after the two met in California in 1978 and began living together. The brief also said that Ms. Spado gave up her career to move in with Ms. Watson, and that “the relationship took on many characteristics of a marriage,” including joint bank accounts.

“Olive’s parents and siblings respected and honored the couple’s relationship,” the brief said. For one birthday, Mr. Watson gave Ms. Spado flowers and his wife, Olive C. Watson, gave her a Bulgari bracelet that he had given her. “Olive’s mother, in particular,” the brief said, “was deeply thankful for the fact that Patricia was instrumental in getting Olive’s life back together after a long period of self-destructive and dangerous behavior.”

In the Town of North Haven, the dichotomy can be stark between the 380 year-round islanders and the summer people, who include the actor Oliver Platt, and Ned Lamont, who unsuccessfully ran for the United States Senate in Connecticut in 2006. A musical written about the island and performed by locals under the direction of John Wulp, the Tony Award-winning producer, summed it up in lyrics:

“Summer people, summer people, busy, busy summer people. Sailing, swimming, biking, golfing, having parties all the time. Island people, island people, busy, busy island people. Cooking, cleaning, mowing, running, making summer people fine.”

Residents said the Watsons are friendly and generous, but spend much of their time at their compound, where they allow public use of their private air strip when no Watsons are in town.

Some residents seemed surprised to learn about the adoption and court fight. As Christie Hallowell, who knows Ms. Watson and who is executive director of the nonprofit agency North Haven Arts and Enrichment, put it, “It all seems very unusual.”

Pam Belluck reported from North Haven, Me., and Alison Leigh Cowan from Stamford, Conn. Ariel Sabar contributed reporting from Rockland, Me.