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In re Estate of Ford

Court of Appeals of The District of Columbia

January 31, 2019

In re Estate of Rosa North Ford; Raymond North-Bey, Appellant.

          Argued November 8, 2018

          Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (ADM-1014-16) (Hon. Alfred S. Irving Jr., Trial Judge)

          Kate Heinzelman for appellant.

          Joyce A. Williams for intervenor.

          Before Blackburne-Rigsby, Chief Judge, Easterly, Associate Judge, and Washington, Senior Judge.

          Easterly, Associate Judge.

         In 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 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.

         I. Facts and Procedural History[1]

         Rosa North Ford died intestate in 1998. Her estate was not probated at that time. Ms. North Ford had no biological offspring, [2] 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"[3] (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.

         In 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.[4] 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.

         Ms. 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.

         Mr. 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 equitable adoption."

         Without 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."[5] 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."

         "[W]ithout 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.

         After 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.

         II. Standard of Review

         Whether 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 novo.").

         III. ...

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