When an estate winds up in court, the dispute may involve more than just legal issues. In a case recently decided by the California Court of Appeal, the justices had to consider how “family” has been defined in different cultures, thousands of miles apart and over the span of more than a century.

The decision (Uenaka v. Nakano) involved the estate of two sisters, Fusae and Emi Obata, who died in 2013, unmarried and with no descendants.

In 1911, just over a century before the sisters died, their father, Tomejiro Obata ("Tomejiro"), had been adopted in Japan as an adult by Minejiro and Kiku Obata, in a centuries-old Japanese practice called yoshi-engumi.

Tomejiro was born and raised by his biological parents Hikozaemon and Haru Nakanu.  After Tomejiro died, two members of the Nakanu family living in California brought a legal action to claim their interest in Tomejiro's estate.  They argued that under California law, in the absence of a will, the inheritance rights of Tomejiro’s descendants should be determined by his biological lineage, not by a Japanese adoption performed when he was an adult.

Thus the issue before the trial court, and later the appellate court, was whether under California law Tomejiro should legally be considered the son of his adaptive parents, the Obatas or the son of his natural parents, Mr. and Mrs. Nakanu.

The Alameda County Superior Court ruled in favor of the Obatas. It concluded that Tomejiro’s adoption “severed his relationship with his biological parents, thereby precluding intestate inheritance by the descendants of his biological parents.”

The Nakanos appealed, arguing that yoshi-engumi  does not “satisfy the elemental characteristics of adoption recognized in California and the Western/American context.”  They contended that the traditional Japanese practice did not “create a sufficient parent/child relationship between the adoptee and adopting parents,” did not really terminate the parent/child relationship between the adoptee and his biological parents, had not been subject to a judicial review to ensure its legitimacy, and did not result in a permanent relationship.

The appellate court disagreed, and upheld the decision by the lower court.  The court concluded that where there are conflicts between the laws of different jurisdictions, “the status of adoption is determined by the laws of the jurisdiction where the adoption was effected, and the rules of inheritance are determined by the laws of the jurisdiction of domicile of the decedent at time of death.”

The court noted that in Japan, the cultural significance of “family” is somewhat different than in the United States. The extended family, or “house,” typically includes three generations of a family.  A "house" is considered as “existing uninterruptedly from the past into the future, irrespective of the birth or death of its members,” the appellate justices noted. “The ancestors and the descendants are mutually linked by the idea of family genealogy, which is not understood as a relation merely based on blood lineage and succession, but rather as a number of relations, which are necessary for the maintenance and continuation of the ‘house’ as an institution.”

The head of the house traditionally was “endowed with vast powers and authority,” including designating a successor. If no heir was available, it was customary for the head of the house to adopt a successor, who might well be an adult member of another family.

Under the Japanese Civil Code enacted in the 1890s, “an adopted child acquires the status of a child in wedlock of his/her adopted parent(s) from the time of adoption.” This included those brought into the family through yoshi-engumi.

The appellate court noted that being an heir brought into a family through this practice “involved not just inheritance rights, but financial and moral obligations to care for relatives and honor the family’s ancestors.”

Both culturally and under Japan’s nation’s statutes, “the adopted person is considered a biological child for all purposes,” it said.

“California cannot devalue a parent-child relationship simply because it was created, whether by biology or adoption, in a sister state that imposes different rights and duties as parts of parent-child relationships subject to its jurisdiction,” the justices said.

“For purposes of intestate succession, under California law, the 1911 adoption severed the relationship between decedents’ father and his natural parents,” they ruled, so Tomejiro had to be treated as the heir of his adopted family, not of his biological parents.

The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s ruling, and awarded costs to the respondents.

In a state as diverse as California, even technical matters of probate law can require the courts to take a global view of the statutory and cultural issues involved.

By Lynda I. Chung