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, Washington, for appellant.
A. Williams for intervenor.
Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge, Easterly, Associate Judge,
and Washington, Senior Judge.
this case, we consider whether an individual who is neither
the biological nor legally adopted child of a decedent may
equitably claim to be the decedents "child" and
"heir" under the Districts intestacy statutes such
that he has standing as an "interested person" to
probate the decedents estate. We hold that an individual may
claim equitable status as a decedents 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. Lenoirs junior, respectively.
Mr. North is Mr. North-Beys 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-Beys 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 Fords estate,
in which she identified herself, Mr. North, and Mr. North-Bey
as Ms. North Fords "adopted" children, "heirs
at law," and thus "interested persons" under
D.C. Code § 20-101 (2012 Repl.) with standing to initiate
probate proceedings. Ms. Lenoirs particular interest was to
ensure that Ms. North Fords home in northeast Washington,
the estates 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 current occupant.
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 Fords estate to
protect the estates 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 Courts records from the 1950s were
"entirely reliable." But even if the Superior
Courts 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-Beys 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. ...