“Equitable” Adoption Denied In Absence of Evidence of Intent


Terrold Bean was only one year old when he went to live with Arthur Ford and his wife in California. The Fords took in foster children for San Francisco, and Mr. Bean was one of the ten children they accepted over the years. As it turned out, he was the child they kept for the longest time.

Although Mr. Bean lived with the Fords (and their birth daughter Mary Catherine) for the rest of his childhood, and continued to call them “mom” and “dad,” the Fords never actually got around to adopting him. There was some indication that there were problems with his birth mother’s involvement, or concerns about whether filing an adoption proceeding might not lead to him being removed from their home. Whatever the reason, even after his mother’s parental rights were terminated (Mr. Bean was then four) no adoption was undertaken.

In 1973, when Mr. Bean was 18, his foster mother died. He continued to live with Mr. Ford and Mary Catherine until he was married, and maintained close contact for the next twenty five years.

When Mary Catherine, his “sister,” died in 1999, Mr. Bean took over responsibility for care of Mr. Ford. He supervised Mr. Ford’s stay in a nursing home and arranged for a conservator to be appointed to manage his affairs. But when Mr. Ford died in May, 2000, he left no surviving children and no will naming Mr. Bean.

Under California law (as would be the case in Arizona) Mr. Ford’s entire estate would pass to his closest relatives—a niece and nephew who had not seen him for fifteen years and didn’t even know that either he or Mary Catherine had died until a lawyer contacted them.

Mr. Bean filed a claim in the probate court, arguing that he was really Mr. Ford’s son even though no adoption had been formalized. He relied on the common law doctrine of “equitable” adoption, which recognizes that sometimes the failure to complete the legal proceedings should not prevent inheritance by someone who has in fact been raised as if they had actually been adopted. After hearing the evidence, however, the probate court ruled against Mr. Bean and he appealed.

The California Court of Appeals agreed that Mr. Bean had not established the requirements for an equitable adoption. The appellate court noted that there was no evidence that Mr. and Mrs. Ford ever intended to adopt Mr. Bean. The judges also ruled that Mr. Bean had the burden of showing that intention (and the other elements of equitable adoption) by clear and convincing evidence. In the absence of any adoption (and with no will) Mr. Ford’s estate passed to his nephew and niece. Estate of Ford, February 21, 2002.

Arizona also recognizes the possibility of equitable adoption. In Arizona the parent must have promised to adopt the child, while California decisions only speak of an “intent” to adopt. Still, Arizona courts have on three occasions (most recently in 1972) approved inheritances utilizing the equitable adoption concept.

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