Family law, with its complex web of legal and emotional issues, can produce some unusual stories. The story of 48 year-old John Goodman, the founder of the Polo Club Palm Beach in Florida, is particularly unusual. In what critics say is a ploy to shield assets from a pending wrongful death lawsuit, Goodman has filed court paperwork in October 2011 to legally adopt his girlfriend, 42 year-old Heather Laruso Hutchins. The couple have reportedly been dating since 2009, but now she is also legally his adult daughter.
Goodman is facing a lawsuit from the family of 23 year-old Scott Patrick Wilson, who died in a hit-and-run accident on February 12, 2010. The Palm Beach County Sheriff has alleged that Goodman ran a stop sign and collided with Wilson's vehicle. A sobriety test reportedly found Goodman's blood alcohol content to be twice the legal limit. Goodman has been charged with vehicular homicide, criminal DUI manslaughter, and related charges. He pleaded not guilty, and a criminal trial is scheduled to begin March 6, 2012.
Goodman has two minor children. He established a trust for their benefit, and the judge presiding over the Wilson family's wrongful death suit has ruled that, if they obtain an award for damages against Goodman, the trust would not count towards Goodman's financial assets. Hutchins, as Goodman's adopted adult daughter over the age of 35, is now entitled to one-third of the trust's total value, according to the Palm Beach Post. Goodman's attorneys maintain that the adoption's intent is to "ensure his family's stability" and is in no way related to the lawsuit.
Attorneys for the Wilson family claim that Goodman is using the adoption to shield assets from the suit while still being able to use them. If Hutchins has immediate access to part of the trust's value, they argue, then Goodman has access to those assets. The judge in the civil suit describes the adoption as "border[ing] on the surreal," and "tak[ing] the Court into a legal twilight zone." The trust, which is based in Texas and Delaware, is subject to the review of a probate court in one of those jurisdictions. That court could deny Hutchins' asserted right to part of the trust assets. The court in Florida hearing the wrongful death case, however, lacks the authority to review the arrangement.