In re Estate of Rosa North Ford; Raymond North-Bey, Appellant.
November 8, 2018
from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia
(ADM-1014-16) (Hon. Alfred S. Irving Jr., Trial Judge)
Heinzelman for appellant.
A. Williams for intervenor.
Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge, Easterly, Associate Judge,
and Washington, Senior Judge.
Easterly, Associate Judge.
case, we consider whether an individual who is neither the
biological nor legally adopted child of a decedent may
equitably claim to be the decedent's "child"
and "heir" under the District's intestacy
statutes such that he has standing as an "interested
person" to probate the decedent's estate. We hold
that an individual may claim equitable status as a
decedent's child, but only in the strictly limited
circumstance where he proves by clear and convincing evidence
that the decedent took him in as a minor and, from that time
on, objectively and subjectively stood in the shoes of his
parent. We endorse a fact-specific, equitable inquiry
specific to probate matters.
Facts and Procedural History
North Ford died intestate in 1998. Her estate was not
probated at that time. Ms. North Ford had no biological
offspring,  but she raised several children in her
home, among them: Ms. Dorothy Lenoir (née North), the
eldest, Mr. Michael S. North, and Mr. Raymond North-Bey,
about five and ten years Ms. Lenoir's junior,
respectively. Mr. North is Mr. North-Bey's biological
brother; they came to live with Ms. North Ford in the mid
1950s when Mr. North was five and Mr. North-Bey was only a
few months old. Ms. North Ford obtained a Social Security
card for Mr. North-Bey bearing the surname
"North" (not his birth surname) and she enrolled
him in school. According to Mr. North-Bey's counsel,
"[h]e lived his life believing and understanding himself
to be the adopted child of Rosa North," and Ms. North
Ford held herself out as his mother. In 2006, Mr. North-Bey
returned to live in the house he had grown up in, thinking
that he had inherited the property.
2016, Ms. Lenoir, then age seventy-one and in declining
health, filed a petition to probate Ms. North Ford's
estate, in which she identified herself, Mr. North, and Mr.
North-Bey as Ms. North Ford's "adopted"
children, "heirs at law," and thus "interested
persons" under D.C. Code § 20-101 (2012 Repl.) with
standing to initiate probate proceedings. Ms. Lenoir's
particular interest was to ensure that Ms. North Ford's
home in northeast Washington, the estate's only asset,
was not sold. Ms. Lenoir acknowledged that Mr.
North-Bey, then age sixty, had been living in the property
"during the past several years" and that he was the
Lenoir subsequently withdrew from the litigation of the
probate matter after informing the court that she had reason
to believe that Ms. North Ford had not legally adopted her-or
Mr. North or Mr. North-Bey. In response, Mr. North-Bey filed
a motion asking the court to appoint a personal
representative for Ms. North Ford's estate to protect the
estate's sole asset, the house where Ms. North Ford had
raised him and where he was living. Mr. North-Bey also asked
the court to recognize "his right to inherit as an
adopted child of Rosa North Ford" and thus his status as
"an Interested Person pursuant to D.C. Code §
20-101(d)(1)." After his effort to locate records of his
adoption in D.C. Superior Court proved unsuccessful, Mr.
North-Bey filed a supplemental motion asking the court to
recognize his right "to inherit as an adopted or
equitably-adopted child" of Ms. North Ford.
North-Bey did not concede that he was not legally adopted by
Ms. North Ford and, at a second status hearing, he questioned
whether the Superior Court's records from the 1950s were
"entirely reliable." But even if the Superior
Court's lack of records were deemed to prove that he was
not legally adopted by Ms. North Ford, Mr. North-Bey argued
that the court should recognize his status as an heir by
virtue of the doctrine of equitable adoption. Mr. North-Bey
acknowledged that the District of Columbia Court of Appeals
had never addressed this doctrine, but explained that it was
recognized in the intestacy context in "a majority of
jurisdictions," including Maryland. Mr. North-Bey
further acknowledged that, if the trial court recognized the
doctrine of equitable adoption, its application to his case
would trigger a "fact-based inquiry that requires an
evidentiary hearing." He asked the court to give him
"adequate time to complete his investigation and to
prepare for an evidentiary hearing regarding his claim of
further court proceedings, the trial court issued an order
denying Mr. North-Bey's motion for a personal
representative. The court explained that, under District law,
only an interested person may file a petition with the court
to open an estate. Mr. North-Bey's only claim to be an
interested person was his putative status as an heir, but the
court determined he was neither Ms. North Ford's
biological nor her "formally adopt[ed]" child. The
court further ruled that "[t]his jurisdiction does not
recognize equitable adoption." The court acknowledged
that the Court of Appeals "has not addressed this
issue, "but reasoned that adoption is a
"statutory construct" in the District and that
"neither the Congress nor the Council has signaled by
way of amendment [of the adoption statute] that anything
other than a final decree of adoption can create rights that
a natural born child would have." Ultimately the
court determined it "should not depart from [the]
current status of the law in this jurisdiction," and it
did "not view the common law evolution for which Mr.
North-Bey advocates to be within its province."
the benefit of equitable adoption," the trial court
determined that Mr. North-Bey could not show that he was an
heir to Ms. North Ford's estate and was "without
standing to petition the Court to open the estate for
probate." The court thus denied Mr. North-Bey's
motion for the appointment of a personal representative and
dismissed the probate case.
Mr. North-Bey timely appealed the trial court's decision
and order, Ms. North Ford's collateral heirs, see
supra note 2, filed a petition to probate her
estate. See In re Rosa North Ford, No. 2017 ADM
001134 (D.C. Super. Ct. filed Sept. 19, 2017). The court
appointed a personal representative, Mr. Joseph C. Lomax Jr.,
for the estate. The second probate case has been stayed
pending this appeal, in which Mr. Lomax has intervened.
Standard of Review
Mr. North-Bey has standing as an interested person to
litigate a probate case, and the embedded question of whether
the District of Columbia recognizes the doctrine of equitable
adoption such that Mr. North-Bey could be deemed Ms. North
Ford's child and heir under the intestacy statute, are
questions of law that we review de novo. Randolph v. ING
Life Ins. & Annuity Co., 973 A.2d 702, 705 (D.C.
2009) ("[S]tanding is a question of law which we
consider on appeal de novo." (quotation marks
omitted)); Lewis v. Washington Hosp. Ctr., 77 A.3d
378, 379-80 (D.C. 2013) ("[T]he proper interpretation of
statutory provisions is a question of law that we resolve de