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In re Estate of Chambers

July 9, 2009

ESTATE OF EARNEST CHAMBERS, JR., DECEASED.
DARREN WAYNE CHAMBERS, PETITIONER AND APPELLANT,
v.
DORVAIL MONEY, OBJECTOR AND RESPONDENT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Mitchell L. Beckloff, Judge. Reversed and remanded. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BP104281).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rubin, Acting P. J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Darren Wayne Chambers appeals from a probate court order that denied his petition to be declared the sole heir by intestacy of his uncle, Earnest Chambers, Jr., and determined instead that Dorvail Money was Chambers's natural son and sole heir. We reverse and remand for a new hearing because the probate court incorrectly applied a preponderance of the evidence standard of proof instead of the clear and convincing evidence standard, as required by Probate Code section 6453, subdivision (b) and Family Code section 7630, subdivision (c).

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Earnest Chambers, Jr. (Chambers), died on January 2007 at the age of 83. Chambers did not leave a will. In December 2007, Darren Wayne Chambers (appellant) filed a petition with the probate court alleging that under Texas law he was the adopted son of Chambers's deceased brother, entitling him to a determination that he was Chambers's sole heir by intestate succession. Dorvail Money (respondent) challenged that petition and asked that he be determined as the sole heir because he was Chambers's natural son.*fn1 Respondent, who was born in 1978, claimed he was the product of Chambers's extramarital affair with his mother, Diana Williams. Chambers divorced his first wife and married Williams in 1982. They divorced in 1984.

Appellant attacked respondent's claim by pointing out that William Money, not Chambers, was named as respondent's father on his birth certificate and that the marital dissolution petition filed by Chambers against Williams stated there were no minor children from the marriage.*fn2 Mother claimed she was afraid of Chambers's first wife and that she did not identify Chambers as the father in order to avoid trouble. According to mother, respondent lived with Chambers, and Chambers acknowledged respondent as his son, before, during, and after their marriage. By way of both declarations and live testimony, several witnesses who were relatives or close friends of Chambers verified that respondent lived with and was raised by Chambers, who publicly acknowledged respondent as his son. Respondent testified that he lived with Chambers most of his life, and that Chambers paid most of his expenses. There was also evidence that when Chambers applied for an annuity in 1997, he identified respondent as his son and named him as the beneficiary.

Apart from resolving the evidentiary conflicts, the main issue at the hearing was deciding which standard of proof applied to respondent's claim that he was Chambers's heir by intestacy. Appellant characterized respondent as a mere stepson who needed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was entitled to inherit under the doctrine of equitable adoption.*fn3 Respondent contended equitable adoption was inapplicable because he sought to inherit as Chambers's natural son, and under Family Code section 7611, needed to show by only a preponderance of the evidence that Chambers was his presumed father. The probate court said it would not likely find that an equitable adoption occurred, but did find under the preponderance of evidence standard that Chambers was respondent's presumed father under Family Code section 7611, subdivision (d). Because appellant did not rebut that presumption by clear and convincing evidence, the probate court ruled that respondent was Chambers's natural son and heir, and denied appellant's petition. Appellant contends the probate court erred because the clear and convincing evidence standard applies under the doctrine of equitable adoptions. We reject appellant's contention that this was an equitable adoption case, but agree that the probate court erred because the correct standard of proof for respondent's claim was clear and convincing evidence. We therefore reverse for further proceedings.

DISCUSSION

For purposes of determining intestate succession, a parent-child relationship exists in two situations: (1) between a person and his natural parents regardless of the parents' marital status; and (2) between an adopted person and his adoptive parents. (Prob. Code, § 6450, subds. (a), (b).) Probate Code section 6453 describes how either a parent or child may show whether someone is a natural parent for purposes of intestate succession. It provides:

"(a) A natural parent and child relationship is established where that relationship is presumed and not rebutted pursuant to the Uniform Parentage Act (Part 3 (commencing with Section 7600) of Division 12 of the Family Code).

"(b) A natural parent and child relationship may be established pursuant to any other provisions of the Uniform Parentage Act, except that the relationship may not be established by an action under subdivision (c) of Section 7630 of the Family Code unless any of the following conditions exist:

"(1) A court order was entered during the father's lifetime declaring paternity.

"(2) Paternity is established by clear and convincing evidence that the father has openly held out the child as his own.

"(3) It was impossible for the father to hold out the child as his own and paternity is established by clear ...


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