Stepchild Has Standing to Assert Natural Parentage Heirship Under California Law

Posted by Lisa Liu | Dec 20, 2023 | 0 Comments

Stepchild Has Standing to Assert Natural Parentage Heirship Under California Law

In re Estate of Martino, 314 Cal. Rptr. 3d 630 (Ct. App. 2023)                                                                                                                   Post Source: WealthCounsel

Nick Zambito was born in 1961 while his mother was married to his biological father. However, Nick and his mother lived with the decedent (who was not his biological father) for several years before Nick's mother and the decedent married in 1966. The couple divorced in 1972. Despite the divorce, Nick remained close with the decedent and considered the decedent to be his true father. Nick remained in contact with the decedent during his military service and afterward. The decedent's friends stated that the decedent referred to Nick as his son. Nevertheless, the decedent did not adopt Nick and died intestate.

After the decedent died, Nick filed a petition with the probate court to be deemed an heir of his estate; he amended his petition several times, first relying on Cal. Prob. Code § 6454 (Foster parent or stepparent) but ultimately relying upon natural parentage heirship under Cal. Prob. Code § 6453 (a) and (b) (Natural parents). The decedent's biological children, Tracey and Joseph Martino, objected on the basis that Nick was not the decedent's biological son. The probate court determined that the decedent was Nick's natural parent under Cal. Prob. Code § 6540 (Persons entitled to allowance) and § 6453 for determining intestate succession based on clear and convincing evidence of the parent-child relationship between Nick and the decedent over 50 years.

On appeal, the California Court of Appeals agreed that, even though Nick was not the decedent's biological child, he had standing to assert natural parentage heirship under Cal. Prob. Code § 6453(a). The court determined that Cal. Prob. Code § 6454 does not explicitly preclude other statutory methods for a stepchild to establish a right to heirship via intestate succession. Further, Cal. Prob. Code § 6453(a) states that, for purposes of intestate succession, “[a] natural parent and child relationship is established where that relationship is presumed and not rebutted pursuant to the Uniform Parentage Act [Cal. Fam. Code §§ 7600–7606].”

Because the intestacy provisions of the probate code explicitly incorporate the Uniform Parentage Act, a stepchild may establish a right to intestate succession by demonstrating natural parentage under Cal. Fam. Code § 7611(d), which creates a presumption of natural parentage if “[t]he presumed parent receives the child into their home and openly holds out the child as their natural child.” Cal. Fam. Code § 7601 states as follows: “‘Natural parent' as used in this code means a nonadoptive parent established under this part, whether biologically related to the child or not.” 

The court determined that it must, “where reasonably possible,” harmonize Cal. Prob. Code § 6453 and § 6454, construing them to give “force and effect to all of their provisions.” Estate of Martino, 314 Cal. Rptr. 3d 630, 639 (Ct. App. 2023). After an extensive analysis, the court found that each of the two statutes “can be given effect in the specific circumstances they apply without rendering the other a nullity.” Neither of the statutes contained conflicting provisions that would permit intestate succession by a stepchild when the other would forbid it. Therefore, the court ruled that Nick had standing to pursue heirship under Cal. Prob. Code § 6453(a) and Cal. Fam. Code § 7611(d).

Takeaways: In most states, a stepchild is not an intestate heir of their stepparent unless the stepparent adopts the stepchild. California is one of a few states that has laws allowing stepchildren to be heirs under specific circumstances set forth by statute. Although the Martino court found that Nick did have standing to pursue natural parentage heirship due to his parent-child relationship with the decedent, the case nonetheless provides an example of the expense and angst that stems from a failure to create an estate plan.

About the Author

Lisa Liu

Attorney Lisa Liu is the founder of LL Law Firm. Established with a mission to enhance family protection through quality legal services in family-centered matters, LL Law Firm strives to be your trusted and accessible community legal resource in the community. Drawing from her years of experience...


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