In In the Estate Of Leslie Earnest Hines, No. 06-20-00007-CV (Tex. App. – Texarkana October 8, 2020), the appellate court considered a Texas probate court’s judgment finding that no equitable adoption had occurred. We have written about other Texas equitable adoption cases here.
The Facts Of In The Estate Of Leslie Earnest Hines
Leslie Earnest Hines died intestate.
On July 24, 2018, Kathy Denise Fant (Hines’s sister) filed an application for the appointment of a dependent administrator, for issuance of letters of dependent administration, and for determination of heirship, all relating to Hines’s estate. The trial court entered a judgment declaring heirship in Hines’s estate and entered an order granting letters of dependent administration to Fant.
Over a year later, Brian Earnest Hilton filed a motion for new trial. Hilton alleged that he was Hines’s equitably adopted son and therefore an heir to Hines’s estate.
On October 30, 2019, the trial court held a second hearing to determine Hines’s heirs. The evidence presented included:
- Hines had married his wife, Betty Jo Hines, in December 1979
- Betty Jo brought her own son, Hilton, into the marriage when Hilton was around ten years old
- Hines never adopted Hilton
- A neighbor testified that Hines, Betty Jo, and Hilton seemed to be a family, he had never seen Hines interact with Hilton, and that he never saw Hilton bestow love and affection on Hines.
- Another neighbor testified that Hines and Betty Jo raised Hilton, and that Betty functioned as Hilton’s parent
- Hilton testified that he considered Hines to be his father and that he told family, friends, the community, school officials, and military officials that Hines was his father
- Hilton also testified that Hines had made an agreement with Betty Jo to adopt Hilton – he did not remember when the agreement was made, and evidence was presented that adoption would happen in the future
- Hilton was not aware of his father, Danny, ever agreeing to the termination of his parental rights. Moreover, Hilton stated that he was not aware of Danny agreeing, either orally or in writing, to Hines adopting him. Hilton conceded that, prior to making his claim in the heirship proceeding, he had not made any application in any court to be legally adopted by Hines.
- Hilton was not aware of Hines ever filing a written application to adopt him.
- Hilton presented photos, cards, and other testimony showing that Hines, Betty Jo, and Hilton operated as a family unit.
The Texas probate court determined that Hilton was not Hines’s equitably adopted son, stating:
So here I believe that there was some testimony about an agreement to adopt. However, an agreement to adopt must consist of a present promise to adopt as opposed to a mere desire or intention to adopt in the future, and I think that’s the situation that we’re in. There was no evidence presented that there was a present promise to adopt. So the Court will deny the application for equitable adoption and reestablish the heirship as previously testified and presented.
Equitable Adoption Or Adoption By Estoppel In Texas
Adoption by estoppel or equitable adoption takes place under Texas law “when [a person’s] efforts to adopt [a child] are ineffective because of failure to strictly comply with statutory procedures or because, out of neglect or design, agreements to adopt are not performed.” Spiers v. Maples, 970 S.W.2d 166, 170 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 1998, no pet.)
The doctrine of equitable adoption exists under Texas law to prevent a situation where it would be inequitable and grossly unfair to the adopted child for the adoptive parent or his privies to deny the adoption. The doctrine of equitable adoption is not the same as legal adoption. Rather, it merely protects an adopted child’s right to inherit by adoption as if the adoption had been legally completed. Spiers, 970 S.W.2d at 170.
Equitable Adoption Recognized In the Texas Estates Code
The Texas Estates Code recognizes the doctrine of equitable adoption, defining “child” as including a person adopted by “an equitable adoption or acts of estoppel.” Texas Estates Code § 22.004(a)(2).
An Agreement For Adoption Must Exist
In Texas, a child has been determined to have been adopted by estoppel “when a natural parent delivers a child into the custody of others under an agreement between the parent and the custodians that the child will be adopted, and thereafter the custodians and child live in relationship with that of parent and child.” Luna v. Estate of Rodriguez, 906 S.W.2d 576, 579 (Tex. App.—Austin 1995, no writ).
“In no case” has a court in Texas “upheld the adoptive status of a child in the absence of proof of an agreement or contract to adopt.” Lowrey v. Botello, 473 S.W.2d 239, 241 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 1971, no writ).
In upholding the judgment of the Texas probate court finding no equitable adoption, the appellate court stated:
At the hearing, Hilton presented an abundance of evidence showing that he considered Hines to be his father, that, at least on some occasions, Hines referred to Hilton as his “son,” and that Hines spent a significant amount of time with Hilton. Likewise, there was evidence to show that Hines, Hilton, and Betty Jo presented themselves to the public as a family. Most notably, Hilton presented evidence showing that Hines cared a great deal about him. Yet, to establish that there was an agreement, Hilton was required to prove that Hines (1) executed “a statutory instrument of adoption in the office of the county clerk”; (2) attempted to complete the statutory adoption but failed “to do so because of some defect in the instrument of adoption, or in its execution or acknowledgment”; or (3) agreed with “[Hilton] to be adopted, or with [Hilton]’s parents, or some other person in loco parentis that he . . . would adopt [Hilton].” Lowrey v. Botello, 473 S.W.2d at 241. Certainly, the first two requirements are not relevant to this case. Instead, the question before the Court is whether an agreement to adopt existed between the parties, i.e., between Hines and Hilton, between Hines and his biological father, Danny, or between Hines and his mother, Betty Jo. See Cavanaugh v. Davis, 235 S.W.2d 972, 973–74 (Tex. 1951).
In this case, no agreement to adopt existed. Hilton’s natural father never entered into a written or oral agreement with Hines allowing Hines to adopt Hilton. Likewise, there was no evidence that Betty Jo agreed to Hines’s adoption of Hilton. Although there was some evidence that Hines had potentially intended to adopt Hilton sometime in the future, there was no evidence that Hines ever followed-up by actually entering into an agreement to adopt Hilton. As a result, the probate court did not err when it found that Hilton was not equitably adopted by Hines under Texas equitable adoption law.