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My Stepsibling is Now My Sibling When it Comes to Splitting My Parent’s Assets?

by | Mar 7, 2024 | Firm News

The ability for a non-biological “child” to inherit through intestate succession just got easier after two new cases – Estate of Martino (D080846, filed October 18, 2023, Fourth District, Div. One) and Wehsener v. Jerigan (2022) 86 Cal.App.5th.  The Martino case involved a former stepson making a claim that he was entitled to inherit from his former stepfather through intestate succession (the default distribution provision in the Probate Code).  The former stepson argued under several Probate Code and Family Code sections that his former stepfather and him maintained a father-son relationship over the years – what the code calls a “natural parentage” – which meant that the former stepson fell into the definition of an intestate heir.  This meant that instead of the estate being divided between the two biological children, it was divided three ways to include the former stepson.  The other case – Wehsener – involved an abandoned child being taken in by a couple and that couple raising the child as their own.

I have had this issue come up a few times in my practice.  One matter involved the probate of a decedent who had one biological child and two stepchildren that he raised and held out as his own children.  The decedent had done no estate planning and we were able to obtain an order from the probate court that determined the stepchildren as children for purposes of distribution.  In my matter, the biological child agreed that the distribution should include her stepsiblings, so it was not opposed and we had compelling evidence to convince the court.  That was a happy result for everyone.

In the matters where there is no agreement, it can get expensive and time consuming to have the court determine what the decedent wanted in the distribution of their estate.  Also, it can destroy familial relationships.

While the outcome of the recent cases may be what the decedent intended, it took a probate, a trial, and an appeal to get to that determination.  The question would likely not come up if the decedents had executed valid estate plans since it would be clear in those documents who the decedent wanted to receive their assets.  Just another good reason to do some estate planning.