Friday, January 16, 2004
High Court Rejects Expansion of Equitable Adoption Doctrine
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The state Supreme Court yesterday rejected a former foster child’s bid to expand the legal definition of “equitable adoption,” turning aside his claim to a share of his foster parent’s estate on the ground that he had not presented clear and convincing evidence the decedent intended to adopt him.
While Arthur Patrick Ford and his wife raised Terrold Bean from infancy, loaned him money after he moved out of their home, and continued to maintain a close relationship with him until their deaths, “evidence was totally lacking that the Fords ever made an attempt to adopt Bean or promised or stated their intent to do so,” Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for a unanimous court.
Bean, now an Oakland butcher, was born in 1953 and placed with the Fords in 1955. His mother’s parental rights were terminated in 1958—his natural father was never identified—and he lived in the Ford household until 1975.
Bean was one of several Ford foster children, but was the only one to remain in the home after Kathleen Ford died of cancer in 1973. He continued to visit his foster father regularly and to maintain a close relationship with the Fords’ daughter—whose funeral he helped arrange and whose estate he administered following her death in 1999.
After Mary Catherine Ford—the couple’s only natural child—died, Bean obtained a power of attorney to take care of Arthur Ford’s affairs and helped arrange his funeral after his 2000 death. A petition to determine entitlement to distribution of Ford’s $600,000 estate was filed on behalf of his nearest surviving relatives, a niece and nephew with whom he had no contact in the last 15 years of his life.
Bean, however, claimed entitlement to the entire estate under Probate Code Sec. 6454, a statute that specifically provides for “foster child heirship” if the child can show by clear and convincing evidence that he would have been adopted but for “a legal barrier,” and under Sec. 6455, which sets forth the doctrine of equitable adoption.
Under that doctrine, a person who can show he or she has been constructively treated by the decedent as his or her child can inherit as if he or she were a natural child of the deceased.
In the San Francisco Superior Court, Judge Alex Saldamando rejected Bean’s first contention, saying there was no clear and convincing evidence—in fact no evidence at all—of an attempt to adopt but for a legal barrier.
The second contention also was rejected, and Bean in his appeal said the judge had confused the two sections by requiring clear and convincing evidence in order to establish equitable adoption.
Same Proof Required
But Werdegar agreed with the First District Court of Appeal’s Div. Two that while Sec. 6455 applies to a broader class of claimants, the proof requirements under the two sections are the same and Bean did not meet them.
There were, the justice noted, no legal barriers to the Fords adopting Bean after his mother’s parental rights were terminated; that fact, combined with the lack of any expression of intent to adopt, is fatal to Bean’s claim of equitable adoption no matter how close he and the deceased were, Werdegar explained.
“The existence of a mutually affectionate relationship, without any direct expression by the decedent of an intent to adopt the child or to have him or her treated as a legally adopted child, sheds little light on the decedent’s likely intent regarding distribution of property,” the justice wrote. “While a person with whom the decedent had a close, caring and enduring relationship may often be seen as more deserving of inheritance than the heir or heirs at law, whose personal relationships with the decedent may have been, as they were here, attenuated, equitable adoption in California is neither a means of compensating the child for services rendered to the parent nor a device to avoid the unjust enrichment of other, more distant relatives who will succeed to the estate under the intestacy statutes. Absent proof of an intent to adopt, we must follow the statutory law of intestate succession.”
The alternative, Werdegar reasoned, would be a “vague and subjective” rule that would likely be applied inconsistently and inject uncertainty into an area of law requiring “consistent, bright-line rules.”
Thomas Williams, the attorney representing the niece and nephew said the decision “was a piece of cake.”
“This is a very sacred right to leave your estate to your family whether you have a will or not,” Williams said. “Claiming something against a dead man and he can’t be there to defend himself, you better have clear and convincing proof.”
Patrick Sullivan, Bean’s attorney, said his client should be entitled to make a claim.
Bean helped with the Fords’ finances and was involved with decisions regarding Arthur Ford’s life support while he was in a convalescent home, the attorney noted.
“It was a relationship a father has with his son,” Sullivan said. “Mr. Bean was there every holiday.”
Bean did not return calls seeking comment.
The case is Estate of Ford, 04 S.O.S. 199.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company