“It’s commonly believed that stepchildren and foster children cannot inherit from the intestate estate of their non-biological parent unless they are formally adopted by them,” says Cliff Melnick, a partner at Keystone Law Group.

“But as the following case study demonstrates, all is not lost if a formal adoption was never effectuated. It may still be possible to establish yourself as an heir on the basis of California’s equitable adoption doctrine.”

A stepparent could have raised you as his or her child, held you out to the public as a child, taken you on vacations and even claimed you as a dependent on tax returns, but if the stepparent failed to formally adopt you and then died intestate (i.e., without a valid will), you may receive nothing from their intestate estate.

This was the position in which Keystone’s client found herself after the death of her beloved stepfather. As it stood, she was not entitled to inherit from his estate because she was neither his biological daughter, nor his adopted child.

She approached Keystone for help to establish herself as an heir on the basis of equitable adoption so that she and her two children could inherit from her stepfather’s estate — which is what her stepfather told her he wanted.

Keystone’s client was unable to imagine a time in which her stepfather was not the central father figure in her life, since he raised her from the time she was 5 years old. They shared a familial bond that was no different from the kind of bond a biological father shares with his biological daughter.

However, as a result of certain circumstances, the stepfather never formally adopted our client, nor did he create an estate plan that named our client as a beneficiary. For these reasons, the state of California did not regard our client as the stepfather’s daughter for purposes of inheriting from his estate.

Luckily, even though our client’s right to inherit from the stepfather’s estate was not automatic, it was something that could be proven. To do so, Keystone filed a petition to determine heirship and entitlement to the stepfather’s estate based on equitable adoption.

However, Keystone faced an uphill battle in setting out to protect our client’s rights based on equitable adoption as the child is tasked with demonstrating the parent’s intent to adopt by clear and convincing evidence, the highest possible burden of proof.

Keystone tackled this challenge all while facing vigorous opposition from the stepfather’s sister, who was his closest living heir and entitled to inherit the entirety of his estate under California’s intestate succession statutes (California Probate Code sections 6400 – 6455).


Table of Contents

Key Concepts

To understand this equitable adoption case and its implications, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the concepts discussed in the following subsections.

What Is Intestate Succession?

When a person dies without having executed a valid estate plan, California’s laws of intestacy will determine who is to inherit what from their estate (their estate consists of all the assets that are not being disposed of through their trust, will, beneficiary designations and other types of non-probate transfers). With intestate succession, it is generally only the decedent’s closest living heirs who have a right to inherit (e.g., their surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, siblings, parents, nieces and nephews).

Intestate succession laws may also apply if a successful will or trust contest challenges one or more of the decedent’s estate planning documents, and prior estate planning documents did not exist. For example, if the probate court invalidated decedent’s will due to undue influence or another form of elder financial abuse, the assets included in the will become part of the decedent’s intestate estate and are distributed to their closest living heirs.

There are, however, certain rare exceptions to California’s intestate succession laws. As an example, if the executor or administrator of an estate proves an heir misappropriated the decedent’s assets, the court may rule that the offending heir cannot inherit from the estate. As another example, if the decedent was in a monogamous relationship with a partner for the majority of their life, but never married, and died without a will, their assets may end up passing to their closest living relatives instead of their partner, even if the decedent would have wanted their partner to receive everything (the partner, however, may be able to file a creditor’s claim known as a Marvin action to claim a portion of their estate).


To learn more about intestate succession, visit our post on what happens if someone dies without a will.

What Is Equitable Adoption?

California probate laws do not differentiate between natural children and adopted children when it comes to inheriting from a decedent’s estate. Therefore, if a decedent dies without a valid will, both natural and adopted children are viewed under California intestacy law as possessing the same status as heirs.

When a legal adoption cannot be effectuated during a parent’s lifetime, a child can still inherit from that parent through either (1) statutory adoption of (2) equitable adoption.

Statutory adoption under Probate Code section 6454 is available when the relationship between a child and a parent began prior to the child turning 18 and the relationship continued for the entirety of both their lifetimes. The parent must show that the child would have been adopted but for a legal barrier (e.g., one or both of the child’s natural parents failed to consent to the adoption).


Equitable adoption occurs when the concepts of equity and fairness allow for the enforcement of a promise or oral agreement to adopt. A child is therefore empowered to inherit from their parent’s estate if they can prove that their parent intended to adopt them but failed to effectuate the arrangement during their lifetime. Equitable adoption can be difficult to prove, as the child is required to demonstrate the parent’s intent to adopt them by “clear and convincing” evidence, which is a higher standard than the probate court ordinarily requires.

To read more about statutory adoption vs. equitable adoption, visit our post on Probate Code section 6454.

An In-Depth Look Into Keystone’s Equitable Adoption Case

Needless to say, it was a heart wrenching experience for Keystone’s client to be raised by her stepfather as his daughter only for an estranged sibling of the decedent, who had been residing in Greece, to appear out of the blue and claim a portion of his estate. Unfortunately, even sister’s opportunistic claims were not enough to sway the case in our client’s favor.

As previously mentioned, for the court to consider our client as an adopted child on the basis of equitable adoption, clear and convincing evidence would need to be presented to confirm that the decedent had, in fact, intended to adopt the client.

Why Didn’t the Decedent Formally Adopt the Client?

It is natural to wonder why the decedent had never taken steps to formally adopt the client if he had, in fact, regarded her as his daughter. It surely would have eliminated the need for legal proceedings such as this one.

The truth of the matter is that neither the decedent nor the client’s mother (the decedent’s former wife) had been American citizens for much of the client’s youth — which would have made it difficult for them to access the legal system in order to effectuate a legal adoption. For the same reason, the client’s mother remained married to the client’s natural father long after she had entered into a monogamous relationship with the decedent.

Additionally, in order for an adoption to have been effectuated, both natural parents needed to provide their consent. The natural father of the client in this case lived a transient lifestyle, so it was unlikely that he could be located; furthermore, even if he could have been located, it was unlikely he would have provided his consent.

The above facts show the decedent would have adopted our client if doing so had been possible.

What Evidence Was Needed to Demonstrate the Decedent’s Intent to Formally Adopt the Client?

The fact the decedent considered the client to be his daughter was not something he kept hidden from anyone, including our client. The decedent was the only father figure our client had, since her biological father lived a transient lifestyle and remained mostly estranged from her until his death.

The decedent also did other things for her that were indicative of his status as her father, such as providing for her, driving her to school, claiming her as a dependent on his tax returns and adding her to his health insurance plan. When the client had a child as a minor, the decedent claimed her child as a dependent on his tax returns as well.

Eventually, the decedent became romantically involved with an old acquaintance of his from Greece, causing him to ultimately divorce the client’s mother. However, this turn of events had no bearing on the close familial relationship the decedent shared with the client and her two children. They continued to communicate and see one another on a weekly basis, and they even vacationed together. The father-daughter bond remained intact when the client got married to her now-husband as well. The decedent helped the client and her spouse in many ways over the years, including purchasing them a new car.

Sadly, the decedent would later be diagnosed with cancer. Near the end of his terminal illness, the client and her children were the decedent’s primary support system, visiting him frequently.

When the decedent was on his deathbed, he called out for the client, specifically. She hurried back to the family home they once shared so she and her children could be at his side. The decedent’s wife was unable to take on this role herself, as she was facing severe emotional distress.

On decedent’s death, it was believed he died intestate being survived only by his sister. When the hospice nurse who tended to the decedent visited with the family, she was surprised to learn the client was not the decedent’s biological or adopted daughter, since he always referred to her as his daughter. The physicians who treated the decedent for 13 years were surprised to learn this as well.

Why Did the Decedent Fail to Create an Estate Plan?

The decedent was not a wealthy man. In fact, the most valuable asset in his estate was the home he owned and resided in with the client when he was married to her mother.

Because of the simplistic nature of his estate, the decedent mistakenly believed it was not necessary to create an estate plan. However, he expressed to both the client and her mother he wanted the home to be sold after his death and the proceeds from the sale to be divided equally between the client’s two children (his grandchildren).

Additionally, a text message from the decedent to the client showed he wanted her to serve as his power of attorney. He informed her that he provided his medical team with her phone number in the event final decisions regarding his health needed to be made.

While it was clear the decedent took some end-of-life precautions, they were not enough to establish the client as an heir to his estate. They did, however, provide further in support of the close familial relationship they shared.


To prove the status of Keystone’s client as an intestate heir, Keystone worked tirelessly to secure declarations from decedent’s friends, family and co-workers, who overwhelmingly testified the decedent had a close familial relationship with the client, and that the decedent had acted in a manner that was consistent with an intent to adopt the client.

Still, the decedent’s sister argued the equitable adoption theory could be easily defeated by the fact the decedent never expressly articulated an intent to formally adopt the client. She also minimized the importance of the decedent having held the client out as his daughter to the community at large.

In response, Keystone presented tax returns and insurance coverage in which the decedent claimed the client as a dependent. They argued that these documents  served as an alternate means of proving an intent to adopt.

The case eventually settled at an emotional mediation. Keystone convinced both the decedent’s sister and the mediator of the strength of the client’s evidence resulting in a favorable settlement. The client received a 50% interest in the decedent’s estate, and perhaps more importantly, felt validated in her status as the decedent’s daughter.

The Takeaway

Regardless of whether legal barriers are present, it is always worth discussing your family situation with a lawyer to ensure your step children and or foster children inherit from your estate.

While this case was resolved in a manner the client found favorable, equitable adoption remains difficult to prove without clear and convincing evidence. Furthermore, your stepchild or foster child will likely have to incur legal fees in order to secure the validation they seek as an heir of your estate.

While a legal adoption may not have been possible for the decedent to accomplish, creating a comprehensive estate plan that provided for our client and her children would have been simple by comparison. As a result of his lack of appropriate planning, the decedent’s estate was divided equally between his sister and the client, which did not reflect his true desire for our client and her children to receive the entirety of his estate.

“Equitable adoption cases are generally quite challenging to win since clear and convincing evidence of the decedent’s intent to adopt the child is required,” says Shawn Kerendian, the managing partner at Keystone Law Group. “But Keystone does run from a challenge, and we couldn’t be happier with this outcome. Not only was our client able to secure her rightful inheritance from her stepfather’s estate, but she received the emotional validation that she deserved.”

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Are you dealing with a potential equitable adoption case? Ask us your questions!

Equitable adoption cases can be some of the most challenging in probate law. That is why you need a knowledgeable team of lawyers by your side. Learn how we can help you win your case by scheduling a free consultation with one of our lawyers. We are standing by to help.