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Law School Case Brief

Estate of Ford - 32 Cal. 4th 160, 8 Cal. Rptr. 3d 541, 82 P.3d 747 (2004)


The California law of equitable adoption, which has rested on contract principles, does not recognize an estoppel arising merely from the existence of a familial relationship between the decedent and the claimant. The law of intestate succession is intended to carry out the intent a decedent without a will is most likely to have had. 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. 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 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, a court must follow the statutory law of intestate succession.


Decedent's wife and only natural child had predeceased him. Decedent's nephew filed a petition to determine entitlement to distribution of decedent's estate, listing both himself and his sister, the nearest living relatives, as heirs. Decedent’s adult foster son, who had been taken in by decedent and his wife and raised like the brother of their natural daughter, filed a statement of interest claiming entitlement to the entire estate under Prob. Code, §§ 6454 & 6455. Neither the nephew or niece had any contact with decedent for about 15 years before his death, and neither had attended his funeral, while the foster son had enjoyed a close familial relationship with decedent until his death. The superior court ruled against the foster son’s claim, finding that Prob. Code, § 6454’s requirement of a legal barrier to adoption was not met, and that the doctrine of equitable adoption was inapplicable. The foster son appealed only on the equitable adoption issue. The appellate court affirmed, agreeing that equitable adoption was not proven by clear and convincing evidence.


Was the equitable adoption proven by clear and convincing evidence?




The Court affirmed the determination that there was no equitable adoption under Cal. Prob. Code § 6455. Although the foster parents and the foster son enjoyed a close and enduring familial relationship, there was no evidence that the foster parents ever made an attempt to adopt the foster son or promised or stated their intent to do so. The foster son did not take his foster father's name, and his foster parents did not hold him out to the world as their natural or adopted child and did not represent to him that he was their child. Substantial evidence thus supported the finding that intent to adopt, which was necessary to an equitable adoption, was unproven. Although Cal. Evid. Code § 115 provided that the burden of proof in civil cases was a preponderance of the evidence, except as otherwise provided by law, a standard of clear and convincing evidence was properly applied to an equitable adoption in accordance with decisional law.

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