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John J. Ford III and sister Veronica Newbeck had not seen their uncle for 15 years before he died without a will in 2000. Nor did they attend his funeral. But on Thursday, the California Supreme Court solidified their claim to Arthur Ford’s $600,000 San Francisco estate by ruling that Terrold Bean, a foster child who had been like a son to Ford for 45 years, was not entitled to the inheritance because the family had never tried to adopt him. The court ruled unanimously that the doctrine of equitable adoption — which says a person treated as a natural or adopted child may share in a foster parent’s estate — requires clear and convincing evidence that the parents intended to adopt. Bean failed that test, the court held, even though he shared a “close, caring and enduring relationship” with Arthur and Kathleen Ford, and their daughter, Mary Catherine, for decades. “The law of intestate succession is intended to carry out ‘the intent a decedent without a will is most likely to have had,’” Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar wrote. “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 ruling will require foster children and others claiming inheritance where there is no will to provide almost unimpeachable proof that their parents intended to adopt them or had always treated them like a son or daughter. “This intent may be shown, of course, by proof of an unperformed express agreement or promise to adopt,” Werdegar wrote. Or, she held, it could also be demonstrated by unconsummated attempts to adopt, the decedent’s prior statements about planning to adopt, or by representing to the community that a child is legally adopted or a natural member of the family. Oakland solo practitioner Patrick Sullivan, who represented Bean, expressed disgust with the ruling. “It means a de facto family relationship doesn’t mean that much,” he said. “This basically takes the equity out of equitable adoption.” Born in 1953, Bean, now a butcher in Oakland, was placed in the Ford home in 1955. He was declared free of his birth mother’s control in 1958, and lived in the Ford house until 1975, when he turned 18. Bean referred to the Fords as his “mom” and “dad” and to Mary Catherine as his “sister.” After his foster mother died in 1973, he continued a family relationship with his foster sister, who died in 1999, and his foster father. He even arranged the funerals of the last two. Ford’s nephew, who lives in St. Helena, and niece, from San Mateo, filed as heirs after Ford passed away. Bean opposed, but lost his case both in the trial court and the appellate court on the basis that he wasn’t equitably adopted. During oral arguments in November, some of the Supreme Court justices, particularly Werdegar and Joyce Kennard, expressed sympathy for Bean, but seemed to feel their hands were tied by the law. That proved true on Thursday. Werdegar wrote that while someone who had a lasting and loving relationship may be seen as more deserving of an inheritance than heirs who hadn’t darkened the door in years, that’s not the law. “Equitable adoption in California,” she said, “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,” she added, “we must follow the statutory law of intestate succession.” San Francisco solo Thomas Williams, who represented the niece and nephew, said he was surprised that the ruling was unanimous. He expected to win, he said, but figured it might be a 5-2 vote, with Werdegar ruling against him. “We felt confident,” Williams said, “because the appellate wrote 3-0 that not only was clear and court convincing the standard, but that Bean should not win under any standard.” The ruling, he said, will require people such as Bean to make sure their loved ones offer up promises or some representation that they intended to adopt. “Give us something,” he said. Bean’s lawyer, Sullivan, said the ruling would hurt his client deeply. “His whole identity here has been sort of annihilated,” he said. “What gets me,” he continued, “is you look at the Marvin case, a palimony case: They live together a couple of years and break up and the girlfriend has equitable relief. And here we have a 45-year de facto familial relationship” and there’s no equitable relief. “It seems a little odd.” The ruling is Estate of Ford, 04 C.D.O.S. 363.

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