Fusae and Emi Obata were found dead in their San Lorenzo, California, home in 2013, their bodies discovered when their mail carrier noticed the elderly sisters’ deliveries piling up. Though they died alone—they never married or had children—their probate proceeding wasn’t unnoticed by two sets of relatives who fought with each other over centuries-old Japanese tradition.
The adoptive relatives based their case on the fact that the sisters’ father, Tomejiro Obata, was adopted in 1911 under Japan’s yoshi-engumi, the ancient practice of adding a person to a family to perpetuate its “house” and keep its name from going extinct from a lack of male heirs. At the Alameda County Superior Court trial, biological descendants of Tomejiro’s family—the Nakanos—claimed they alone should be in the line of succession for the Obata sisters’ estates. They argued yoshi-engumi doesn’t “satisfy the elemental characteristics of adoption recognized in California and the Western/American context.”
The Court of Appeal found for the adoptive family. First, it determined that California courts must recognize Tomejiro Obata’s adoption because it was considered legal under Japanese law in 1911. Second, it found that under state law, an adoption severs the relationship between parent and child for intestate succession, which extinguished the Nakano family’s inheritance claim.
Keep your own house in order by consulting an estate planning lawyer if you have adopted descendants—or not so long-lost family members—to consider. In re Estate of Obata, 27CA5th, First District, Div. Three, A150284 (2018)
About the author:
John O’Grady leads a full-service estate and trust law firm in San Francisco. His practice includes Estate Planning & Administration, Probate and Trust Litigation.