Legal Opinion: the status of adult adoption in the context of the German nobility

Introduction
On a German website, focussing on selling titles of nobility, it is stated that German nobility can be obtained by adoption:

Members of Germany’s historical nobility up to the Royal Rank offer the rare opportunity to acquire a genuine title of nobility. If you were not born into the noble class, you can acquire a highly prestigious German nobility title by adoption, marriage or, for your firm or product, licensing by a legal title-holder.

In this article, I will answer the question to what extend this statement is correct.

Legal framework

German law

Article 109 of the Weimar Constitution, inter alia, abolished all privileges based on birth or status and provided that marks of nobility were to be valid only as part of a surname. Pursuant to Article 123(1) of the present Constitutional Law,  that provision remains applicable today. It is common ground that under German law a surname which includes a title of nobility continues to vary according to the sex of the bearer if that was the case for the former title of nobility.

Adolf II. Fürst zu Schaumburg-Lippe (23 February 1883 – 26 March 1936) was the last ruler of the Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe. He was succeeded as head of the House of Schaumburg-Lippe by his brother Wolrad (1887-1962), who was succeeded by Philipp-Ernst (1928-2003). The current head of the dynasty is Alexander (1958).

Any head of a dynasty who did not reign prior to 1918 but had held a specific title as heir to one of Germany’s former thrones (such as, Erbprinz (“hereditary prince”)). In a similar way the heirs to a title of nobility inherited via primogeniture, and their wives—were permitted to incorporate those titles into elements of the personal surname. These specific titles were not heritable (1). With the death of the last person styled “Kronprinz” (=crown prince) before 1918, the title Kronprinz ceased to exist as a part of German surnames. Traditional titles exclusively used for unmarried noblewomen by birth, such as Freiin, were also transformed into parts of the legal surname. The could be changed after marriage or upon request (2). All other former titles and designations of Nobility are currently inherited as part of the surname, and protected by German family law as such.

Sections 1297 to 1921 of the German Civil Code (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) (BGB) contain rules regarding family law. The competent court of first instance is the District Court (Amtsgericht) (section 23a, Law on the System of Judicature) (GVG). Court hearings are generally held in private (section 170, GVG). Remedies in family cases go to the regional Courts of Appeal (Oberlandesgericht) (section 119 I a and b, GVG).

Adoption of children is possible if it serves the best interests of the child and it is anticipated that a parent-child relationship will arise between the adoptive parent and the child (section 1741 I, BGB). With adoption, the child becomes the legal child of the adoptive parents/person/couple who receives parental custody by law. The legal relationship to the previous parents, to former siblings, grandparents, great-grandparents or cousins ends. In addition, the child receives the surname of the adoptive family.

Austrian Law (3)

In 1919 the Law on the abolition of the nobility, (Gesetz vom 3. April 1919 über die Aufhebung des Adels, der weltlichen Ritter- und Damenorden und gewisser Titel und Würden (Adelsaufhebungsgesetz), which has constitutional status in accordance with Article 149(1) of the Federal Constitutional Law (Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz) abolished the nobility, secular orders of knighthood and certain other titles and dignities, and prohibited the bearing of the corresponding styles. Under Paragraph 1 of the implementing provisions adopted by the competent ministers (Vollzugsanweisung des Staatsamtes für Inneres und Unterricht und des Staatsamtes für Justiz, im Einvernehmen mit den beteiligten Staatsämtern vom 18. April 1919, über die Aufhebung des Adels und gewisser Titel und Würden), the abolition applies to all Austrian citizens, regardless of where the relevant privileges were acquired. Paragraph 2 indicates that the prohibition covers, inter alia, the right to bear the particle ‘von’ as part of the name and the right to bear any title of noble rank, such as ‘Ritter’ (knight), ‘Freiherr’ (baron), ‘Graf’ (count), ‘Fürst’ (prince), ‘Herzog’ (duke) or other corresponding indications of status, whether Austrian or foreign. Under Paragraph 5, various penalties may be imposed for contravening the prohibition.

This prohibition has been applied by the courts with certain adjustments where those bearing a German surname including a former German mark of nobility were concerned. Where a German citizen bore such a surname and acquired Austrian nationality, that name could not be reinterpreted as including a title of nobility and could not be changed. Moreover, an Austrian woman acquiring such a name by virtue of marriage to a German citizen was entitled to bear the name in its entirety; however, she must bear exactly the same surname as her husband, and not a feminine form of the name.

Under Paragraph 9(1) of the Federal Law on international private law (Bundesgesetz vom 15. Juni 1978 über das internationale Privatrecht (IPR-Gesetz), the personal status of natural persons is determined by the law of their nationality. Under Paragraph 13(1), the name which they bear is regulated by their personal status, regardless of the basis on which the name was acquired. Paragraph 26 provides that conditions governing adoption are regulated by the personal status of each adopting party and of the child, while its ‘effects’ are regulated, when there is a single adopting party, by the personal status of that party.

The ‘effects’ thus regulated extend only to those in family law and not to the determination of the adopted child’s name (which remains governed by Paragraph 13(1)). According to a report drawn up by the International Commission on Civil Status (ICCS) in March 2000 (‘Loi applicable à la détermination du nom’) at which time Austria was a member of that organisation, in response to the question ‘What is the law applicable to the determination of the name of an adopted child?’, Austria stated: ‘The (change of) name of an adopted child is one of the effects of the adoption and is determined according to the national law of the adopting party or parties. When the adopting parties are spouses of different nationality, their common national law, failing which their previous common national law if it is still the national law of either spouse, applies. Formerly, the applicable law was that of the habitual residence‘.

Under Paragraph 183(1), read in conjunction with Paragraph 182(2), of the Austrian Civil Code (Allgemeines bürgerliches Gesetzbuch) a child adopted by a single person takes that person’s surname if the legal ties with the parent of the other sex have been dissolved.

Until a court case in 2018 decided otherwise, the noble prefix “von” was tolerated in Austria when having the meaning of originating from a certain geographical location (thus not designating a noble title). The non-noble designation “van” is still tolerated.

Court cases (4)

Sayn-Wittgenstein

Graf Christian Ludwig Casimir zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg-Ludwigsburg) (13 July 1725, Berleburg – 6 May 1797, Rheda) (WikiMedia Commons)

Ms Ilonka Sayn-Wittgenstein, an Austrian citizen resident in Germany, following her adoption, in 1991, by Mr Lothar Fürst von Sayn-Wittgenstein, a German citizen, acquired the surname of the latter as her name at birth, with his title of nobility, in the form “Fürstin von Sayn-Wittgenstein” (“Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein”). The Austrian authorities proceeded to enter this new name in the Austrian register of civil status. They also renewed and issued a passport and certificates of nationality in the name of Ilonka Fürstin von Sayn-Wittgenstein.

In 2003, the Austrian Constitutional Court held, in a similar case, that the 1919 Law on the abolition of the nobility – which is of constitutional status and implements the principle of equal treatment – precluded an Austrian citizen from acquiring a surname which includes a title of nobility by means of adoption by a German national who is permitted to bear that title as a constituent element of his name. Prompted by that judgment, considering that the birth certificate issued to Ms Ilonka Fürstin von Sayn-Wittgenstein following adoption was incorrect, the civil registrar of Vienna corrected the entry of the surname in the register of civil status to “Sayn-Wittgenstein”. The correction was based on Paragraph 15(1) of the Law on civil status, that requires a registration to be rectified if it was incorrect at the time the entry was made.

Mrs. Sayn-Wittgenstein challenged this decision before the Austrian Supreme Administrative Court, arguing that the non-recognition of the effects of her adoption on her name constituted an obstacle to her right to freedom of movement – since this forces her to use different names in two Member States – and interference with her right to respect for family life – on account of the amendment of her name which she had nevertheless used continuously for 15 years.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) considered that the justification relied upon by the Austrian Government, i.e. the application of the 1919 Law on the abolition of the nobility and more generally the constitutional principle of equality of all Austrian citizens, should be interpreted as reliance on public policy. After having recalled the margin of discretion of the Austrian authorities and the fact that the Union respects the national identities of its Member States, it considers that it is not disproportionate for a Member State to seek to attain the objective of protecting the principle of equal treatment by prohibiting any acquisition, possession or use, by its nationals, of titles of nobility or noble elements which may create the impression that the bearer of the name is holder of such a rank.

Consequently, the ECJ replies that the refusal by the authorities of a Member State to recognise all the elements of the surname of one of its nationals, as determined in another Member State at the time of his or her adoption as an adult by a national of the latter, where that surname includes a title of nobility which is not permitted in the first Member State under its constitutional law, does not unjustifiably undermine the freedom to move and reside enjoyed by citizens of the Union.

Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff

Mr. Nabiel Peter Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff changed his name while living in the United Kingdom to Peter Mark Emanuel Graf von Wolffersdorff Freiherr von Bogendorff. He has dual German-UK citizenship. Mr Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff lived in the United Kingdom between 2001 and 2005. He changed his name under United Kingdom rules and became a citizen of both countries. On his return to Germany, Mr. Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff requested the registry office of the city of Karlsruhe to register his new name, which would allow him to update his German identity papers. The Karlsruhe registry refused.

Mr Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff stated that this has created problems with identity documents, including getting German officials to recognise his passport. He also has trouble convincing people that his young daughter is related to him. Her (United Kingdom) name is Larissa Xenia Graefin von Wolffersdorff Freiin von Bogendorff. Mr Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff took his case to a district court in the town of Karlsruhe, which asked the ECJ for advice.

On 2 June 2016 the ECJ decided that Germany was not bound to recognise the name Bogendorff von Wolffersdorff when he also holds the nationality of another Member State in which he has acquired that name which he has chosen freely and which contains a number of tokens of nobility, which are not accepted by the law of the first Member State, provided that it is established, which it is for the referring court to ascertain, that a refusal of recognition is, in that context, justified on public policy grounds, in that it is appropriate and necessary to ensure compliance with the principle that all citizens of that Member State are equal before the law.

Case study: Schaumburg-Lippe

677px-Coat_of_Arms_of_the_Principality_of_Schaumburg-Lippe.svg

Coat of Arms of the Principality of Schaumburg-Lippe (WikiMedia Commons). Artwork by Glasshouse using elements by Sodacan – Own work.

Schaumburg-Lippe was a county in Germany until 1807 when it became a principality. From 1871 until 1918 it was a state within the German Empire. The current heir apparent of the House of Schaumburg-Lippe (according to the traditional rules that were applied before 1919) is Ernst-August Alexander Wilhelm Bernhard Krafft Heinrich Donatus Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe (1994), the son of Ernst August Alexander Christian Viktor Hubert Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe (1958), head of the dynasty.

The House of Schaumburg-Lippe is an interesting subject to study in this respect because of the adult adoption by Prince Waldemar of Schaumburg-Lippe, a socialite. Officially Prince Waldemar is called Waldemar Stephan Ferdinand Wolrad Friedrich Karl Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe (born 19 December 1940 in Glienicke, Germany). He is a son of Christian Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe and Prinzessin Feodora of Denmark, and the great-grandson of King Frederick VIII of Denmark. Prince Waldemar’s fourth marriage was with Gertraud-Antonia Wagner-Schöppl, a politician, on 20 September 2008 in Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna. He adopted the adult son of his wife: Mag. iur. Dr. iur, Mario-Max Schaumburg-Lippe, MAS, LLM, a well-known actor and journalist.

Mario-Max Schaumburg-Lippe was born on 23 December 1977 as Mario-Max Wagner, in Salzburg, Austria. His father was Dr. Helmut Wagner, MD. Mario-Max Wagner was adopted in Austria in 2001 by Helga Claire Lee Roderbourg (1911-2005), widow of Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe (nephew of the mentioned Prince Waldemar) and daughter of the German industrialist Dr. Carl Roderbourg. In the process, he changed his surname from Wagner to Schaumburg-Lippe. At the occasion of the mentioned marriage of his mother, Gertraud-Antonia Schöppl to Prince Waldemar in 2008, Mario-Max was adopted again, this time by Prince Waldemar. Due to his (German) adoption by Prince Waldemar he obtained the surname Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe and the German nationality. Mario-Max legally changed his given names to Mario-Max Prince Antonius Adolf Albert Eduard Oliver Gertraud Edith Helga Magdalena.

Under German law adults can be adopted (§ 1770 BGB), but the German law considers this to be a so called “weak adoption”, which means that the relationship is limited between the adopting parents and the adoptee (thereby excluding other familial ties of the adopting parents). This also implies that in general the German citizenship is not passed on to the adult adoptee. According to § 1772 BGB, however, adults can also be adopted according to the rules of the adoption of a minor (full adoption) with the same legal effects. This way, the family name is also inherited. According to his birth certificate, shown on his personal internet page, this type of adoption has taken place in the case of Mario-Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe.

I disagree with the negative attitude towards adoptees who have been adopted (being adult or minor) by members of the German nobility when the intensions of such an adoption are genuine. I am convinced that this is the case in the Schaumburg-Lippe situation. During the legal proceedings, this is also tested by the judge who decides whether or not the adoption should be ratified. I therefore do not have any problem with the change of name from Wagner to Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe.

Whether an adopted child can legally be treated as descendent depends upon the law in the particular jurisdiction. In America e.g., the States have different rules and statutes. Some allow a person to inherit from both his/her biological parents and the adoptive parents, while others preclude an adoptee from inheriting from his/her biological parents and allow them only to inherit from his/her adoptive parents. Under Florida law e.g., adopted children are considered descendants for the purposes of Probate. Applying these remarks to the Schaumburg-Lippe case, it would be incorrect for Mario-Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe (who often resides in America) to e.g. designate Feodora of Denmark as his grandmother or to state that he descends from King Frederik VIII of Denmark, since in everyday language, as well in a legal context, a descendent is a blood relative in the direct line of descent (Black’s Law Dictionary):

One who Is descended from another; a person who proceeds from the body of another, such as a child, grandchild, etc., to the remotest degree. The terms the opposite of “ascendant,” (?. v.). Descendants is a good term of description in a will, and includes all who proceed from the body of the person named; as grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Amb. 397; 2 Hil. Real. Prop. 242.

In the context of family law, an adoptee can be treated in the same way as a descendent, but this is a legal construct and therefore not identical to actually being a descendent. Mario-Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe is an heir to his adoptive father, but not a descendent. There is no biological relation between the adoptee and the dynasty of Schaumburg-Lippe and the genealogical chart that is presented on the website of Mario-Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe is misleading. This observation is without prejudice to Mario-Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe’s achievements in life.

Genealogical chart showing that Mario-Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe is a descendent of King Frederik VIII.of Denmark. This impression is false. The addition “of Germany” is misleading, since Mario-Max nor the House Schaumburg-Lippe have been rulers over Germany. “from Germany” would be the correct description. Source: https://schaumburglippe.org

Conclusions

Traditionally (especially before 1918), adult adoption has been used as a way to save a noble family from extinction.

Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels, Fürstliche Häuser Band XIX, C.A. Starke Verlag, Limburg a.d. Lahn 2011. Example of an adoption with the consent of the German nobiliary law association, obtained after the adoption agreement was ratified by the court and the change of name had been processed in the public registers.

In such cases, in order to be accepted as belonging to the nobility, the adoption had to be followed by a Royal consent; after 1918 replaced by a declaration of no-objection (“adelsrechtliche Nichtbeanstandung der Führung ihres adeligen Namens”) from the German nobiliary law association (“der Deutsche Adelsrechtsausschuß“). Adoptees who obtain(ed) the mentioned consent are treated as founding father of a new family (Heiner Baron v. Hoyningen gen. Huene, Der Deutsche Adelsrechtsausschuss (ARA), pp. 1,4,5,6 ):

Als auch nach 1945 die DAG und mit ihr die Nachfolgeorganisation der APA zu existieren aufhörte, bildete sich nach wenigen Jahren im Jahre 1949 – noch vor der Gründung der Vereinigung der Deut- schen Adelsverbände (VdDA) – der Ausschuss für adelsrechtliche Fragen. Initiator war Hans Friedrich v. Ehrenkrook, der bereits seit 1925 zusammen mit früheren Mitgliedern des aufgelösten Heroldsamtes dem APA angehört hatte und der bis zu seinem Tode 1968 stellvertretender Präsident des ARA war. Er war somit Garant für die erstaunlich kontinuierliche Arbeit in adelsrechtlichen Fragen in einem langen Zeitraum, seit der Auflösung des Heroldsamts bis in die jüngste Vergangenheit, in einer Zeit, die durch ständige Veränderungen geprägt war. Der Ausschuss, der seit 1977 nicht mehr “Ausschuss für adels- rechtliche Fragen der deutschen Adelsverbände” sondern “Deutscher Adelsrechtsausschuß” heißt, wur- de und wird gebildet von Vertretern der einzelnen Deutschen Adelsverbände bzw. historischer deut- scher Landschaften, für die kein Adelsverband besteht.

(…)

Für alle diese Fälle, in denen der Adelsname nach dem staatlichen bürgerlichen Recht zurecht geführt wird, ohne indessen eine Zugehörigkeit zum historischen Adel zu begründen, hält sich der ARA als Rechtsnachfolger seiner Vorgänger, der von 1918 bis 1945 bestehenden Spruchorganisationen des deutschen Adels, für befugt, in besonderen Fällen die Führung eines Adelszeichens, die nach früherem Adelsrecht unzulässig gewesen wäre, adelsrechtlich nicht zu beanstanden mit der Folge, dass der Betroffene als zum Adel gehörend angesehen wird, in das Genealogische Handbuch des Adels aufgenommen und Mitglied eines Adelsverbandes werden kann. Hierbei handelt es sich aber um seltene Ausnahmen bei Vorliegen besonderer Umstände. Denn es kann nicht Aufgabe des ARA sein, Neuadel zu schaffen. Es muß sich um Fälle handeln, in denen angenommen werden kann, dass der Monarch früher eine Nobilitierung vorgenommen hätte.

(…)

Seit 1949 hat die II. Kammer (bis incl. 2016) 105 Entscheidungen getroffen, davon 49 positiv und 56 negativ. Die Probanden, deren Namensführung adelsrechtlich nichtbeanstandet worden sind, begründen adelsrechtlich eine neue adelige Familie, die im GHdA einen eigenen Artikel erhält.

Without the mentioned consent, adult adoption by a German noble person of a non-noble adoptee as such does not create German nobility in a historical sense. Therefore, these adoptees are not listed in e.g. the Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels that contains the genealogies of these families. The position of Mario-Max Prinz zu Schaumburg-Lippe could change when he would obtain a consent from the head of one of the former reigning German dynasties. 


Notes

(1) Several heirs filed suits against this regulation. On 11 March 1966 the supreme Federal Administrative Court of Germany ruled, based on Art. 109 of the Weimar Constitution and an earlier decision of the Reichsgericht, that German law on names does not recognise hereditary surname variants for heads of families distinct from the legal surname borne by other family members. (cf., N.N. Primogenitur – Nur eine Silbe (“primogeniture – only a syllable”), in: Der Spiegel, No. 15 (1966), p. 61.

(2) Das Bürgerliche Gesetzbuch mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Rechtsprechung des Reichsgerichts und des Bundesgerichtshofes; Kommentare (=Großkommentare der Praxis (in German); “Civil Law Code with Special Attention to Jurisdiction of the Reichsgericht and the Bundesgerichtshof: Commentaries”), edited by members of the Bundesgerichthof, vol. 1: §§ 1–240, compiled by Kurt Herbert Johannsen, 12th, newly revised edition, Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1982, § 12 (p. 54). ISBN 3-11-008973-4.

(3) According to the Advocate General Sharpston, delivered on 14 October 2010, in case C‑208/09 (Ilonka Sayn-Wittgenstein) of the European Courts of Human Rights.

(4) ECJ, Case C-208/09 Ilonka Sayn-Wittgenstein vs. Landeshauptmann von Wien, judgment of 22 December 2010, summery of the judgment, provided by the court.

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