PR 01510.014 Hawaii
A. PR 85-034 Lemuel U~, Equitable Adoption - Hawaii
DATE: December 30, 1985
EQUITABLE ADOPTION — WHAT STATE LAW GOVERNS — HAWAII
Absent evidence of a contrary intention by the parties, Hawaii courts look first to the laws of the state where the agreement was executed to judge the efficacy of an adoption contract.
(U~, L~; RA IX; S~; December 26, 1985)
EQUITABLE ADOPTION — SPECIFIC CONTRACTUAL AND EQUITABLE ELEMENTS — CALIFORNIA
In order to establish an equitable adoption under California law, it must be clearly demonstrated that an agreement to adopt was concluded and that the conduct of the parties subsequent to such agreement was indicative of a mutual recognition of an adoptive relationship to such an extent that in equity and good conscience an adoption should be deemed to have taken place.
(U~, L~; RA IX; S~; December 26, 1985)
Consent to adoption must be given with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences. In California, a party is entitled to rescission of contract if, when she assented to the agreement, she did not understand the nature, purpose, and effect of the transaction.
(U~, L~; RA IX; S~; December 26, 1985).
On April 26, 1983 an application for child's insurance benefits was filed in the name of Matthew U~ on the account of the deceased 'wage earner, Lemuel T. U~. Matthew was born Kenneth L. T~ on October 9, 1969 in Honolulu, Hawaii to Afi and Foketi T~. Approximately three weeks later the T~ family moved to California.
On November 18, 1969 Mrs. T~ was hospitalized at the Orange County Medical Center for a condition diagnosed as postpartum psychosis. Hospital records document her in- patient treatment through December 9, 1969 (at which time Mrs. T~ was discharged against medical advice) and again from January 2, 1970 through February 6, 1970. On the occasion of the initial discharge, the attending psychiatrist noted his recommendation that a conservatorship be established for Mrs. T~. There is no record that this recommendation was pursued. In a progress report made on February 5, 1970, during the second hospitalization, the psychiatrist remarked on his concern about the impairment of Mrs. T~ thought processes. Having learned that the T~ had given Matthew to the U~ for adoption, the doctor asked Mrs. T~ if she realized that adoption implied a "permanent relationship." Mrs. T~ responded that she understood that her son would be with the U~ permanently.
The file contains a declaration signed by Mr. T~ , dated January 18, 1970, expressing his intention to give Matthew to the U~ to raise as their own child. Mr. T~ stated that he felt this arrangement was necessary due to his wife's mental illness. A second document, signed by" both Mr. and Mrs. T~ and captioned "Specific Consent of Legal Parents," was notarized in California on April 6, 1970. It indicates that Matthew was "abandoned" with the U~ on November 15, 1969 (three days prior to Mrs. T~ initial hospital admission). Evidently meant for use in formal adoption proceedings, the form document expresses the T~ consent to Matthew's legal adoption by the U~ and their decision to surrender all parental rights and responsibilities.
In separate statements dated October 11, 1983, Mr. and Mrs. T~ each indicated that Matthew was given to the U~ three weeks after birth (i.e., circa October 31, 1969) pursuant to an oral agreement whereby the U~ consented to keep the child permanently and to raise him as their own son. The T~ stated that they understood that they could not reclaim Matthew under any circumstances and that the U~ would undertake legal proceedings for adoption. Matthew's inheritance rights were not discussed.
In statements submitted to SSA between April 26, 1983 and September 4, 1984, Mrs. U~ recalled that Matthew had come to live with her and Mr. U~ when he was six weeks old (i.e. circa November 20, 1969). She explained that the U~ traveled to Hawaii in January 1970 to attend the funeral of Mrs. U~ father, leaving Matthew and their other children behind in California. During this visit, the U~ decided to move to Hawaii permanently. Thereafter, Mr. U~ went back to California to wind up their affairs in that state. Mrs. U~ recollected that it was during her husband's temporary return to California that an oral agreement was concluded, whereby the T~ relinquished Matthew to the U~ unconditionally. Mr. U~ and Matthew left California for Hawaii in March 1970. Adoption proceedings were initiated in Hawaii in 1970 but were eventually dropped for financial reasons.
Mrs. U~ and the T~ have stated that Mr. U~ treated Matthew as his son and that Matthew considered Mr. U~ to be his father. A "normal" parent and child relationship is also attested to by other informants, including Mr. U~ brother and officials at Matthew's school.
You have asked for our opinion as to whether or not Matthew was adopted by the wage earner, Mr. U~, for purposes of entitlement to child's insurance benefits. Section 216(e) (1) of the Social Security Act defines "child" to include a legally adopted child of a wage earner. Section 216(h) (2) (A) of the Act provides that the determination of the existence of a parent and child relationship is to be based on the law of the state in which the insured individual was domiciled at the time of his death. Since Mr. U~ was domiciled in Hawaii when he died on April 7, 1983, it is necessary to determine whether or not the courts of Hawaii would find that Matthew was adopted by Mr. U~.
The first step is to identify the applicable substantive state law. We have previously opined that, absent evidence of a contrary intention by the parties, Hawaii courts would look first to the laws of the state where the adoption contract was executed to judge the efficacy of the agreement. GC opinions re Evangelico C~ , January 8, 1952, citing __ Trousseau v. Cartwright, 10 Hawaii 138 (1895).
There is some disagreement as to when the U~ consented to adopt Matthew. The T~ recall that an oral agreement was reached immediately upon their arrival in California in late October or early November 1969. Mrs. U~ remembers that she and her husband took charge of Matthew in mid-to-late November 1969 and that this arrangement was not made permanent until Mr. U~ returned to California in January 1970. For present purposes, it is unimportant which of these recollections is accurate. According to either version, the adoption agreement was reached while the parties were in California. Consequently, California law determines the validity of the contract.
Where, as here, a formal, legal adoption has not been accomplished, the California courts may uphold an oral adoption agreement on equitable grounds. Estate of W~, 111 Cal. App. 3d 242, 168 Cal. Rptr. 533 (1980); In re R~'s Estate, 194 Cal. App. 2d 773, 15 Cal. Rptr. 268 (1961). In order to establish an equitable adoption, it must be clearly demonstrated that an agreement to adopt was concluded and that the conduct of the parties subsequent to such agreement was indicative of a "mutual recognition of an adoptive parent and child relationship to such an extent that in equity and good conscience an adoption should be deemed to have taken place." Estate of B~, 111 Cal. App. 3d 554, 560, 168 Cal. Rptr. 743, 746 (1980); Mingo v. Heckler, 745 F.2d 537, 539 (9th Cir. 1984). All the evidence in this case points to the existence of an oral adoption agreement, extant no later than March 1970. Both the T~ and Mrs. U~ have stated that Matthew was absolutely surrendered to the U~ with the expectation that a formal adoption would take place. The understanding that relinquishment by the T~ was final and irrevocable is further evidenced by their declarations of January 18, 1970 and April 6, 1970.
Furthermore, as you have already determined, the parties conducted themselves in accordance with the adoption agreement, in that "Matthew remained with the U~. He was treated as their son. He performed as their son." For their part, the T~ have not asserted any parental interests and, indeed, have had little, if any, contact with the child. Therefore, in view of the substantial, uncontradicted evidence of an agreement to adopt, followed by a long history of conduct consistent with such an agreement, we are satisfied that Hawaii would apply California law to find the existence of an equitable adoption.
One troubling aspect of this case remains to be addressed. It appears that during the period when the adoption agreement was made, Mrs. T~ was experiencing a severe mental illness. In California, a party is entitled to rescission of a contract if, when she assented to the agreement, she was not mentally competent to deal with the subject of the transaction with a full understanding of her rights and obligations. California Civil Code §39. The test is whether she understood the nature, purpose, and effect of the particular transaction. Smalley v. Baker, 262 Cal. App. 2d 824, 69 Cal. Rptr. 521 (1968), and cases cited therein. Consent to adoption must be given with sufficient awareness of the relevant circumstances and likely consequences. San Diego County Dept. of Public Welfare v. Superior Court, 7 Cal.3d 1, 496 P.2d 453," 101 Cal. Rptr. 541 (1972).
Medical reports in the claims file strongly suggest that Mrs. T~ may not have been fully able to recognize the implications of adoption at the time of the oral agreement here. Clinical notes concerning her first hospital admission indicate that the treating psychiatrist considered Mr. T~ to be so severely incapacitated that she was in need of a conservator. During the second hospitalization, the psychiatrist actually asked Mrs. T~ if she appreciated the significance of adoption. Although her response reflected some rudimentary understanding, the medical record, taken as a whole, raises serious doubts as to Mrs. T~ ability to fully comprehend the meaning of adoption at the time of the oral agreement. Based on this evidence, we think that Mrs. T~ would have been entitled to seek rescission of the adoption agreement, if she had chosen to disavow it. Smalley v. Baker, cited above; Burgess v.. 'Security-First National Bank of Los. Angeles, 44 Cal. App. 2d 808,113 P.2d 298 (1941).
It is essential to note, therefore, that rather than seek rescission, Mrs. T~ subsequently acted to ratify the agreement. Ratification was first expressed in the formal "Specific Consent of Legal Parents" signed by Mrs. T~ on April 6, 1970, several months after her discharge from the Orange County Medical Center. There is nothing to indicate that her judgment and understanding were impaired at the time this document was executed. Moreover, the T~ have never attempted to regain custody of Matthew or to deny the validity of the adoption agreement. On the contrary, as their recent statements to SSA attest, they are quite content to abide by the contract. Once again, there is no evidence that Mrs. T~ continued to experience significant mental impairment following the termination of hospitalization in February 1970. Consequently, in our opinion, the courts would construe the express consent of April 6, 1970, combined with the abiding acquiescence in Matthew's adoption, as constituting ratification of the agreement. Such ratification renders the contract binding upon all parties. California Civil Code §1588; see' Dool v. First National Bank of Calexico, 107 Cal. App. 585, 290 P. 478 (1930) (note executed when one maker was mentally incapacitated, subject to ratification once mental competence regained). Accordingly, based on this agreement, the courts of Hawaii would find that Matthew was the equitably adopted child of Mr. U~
Mrs. U~ indicated that she and her husband selected the name Matthew when they first received the child, because they were unaware that he already had been named by his natural parents.
Neither of these documents, standing alone, constitutes an adoption contract, since neither embodies an expression of consent to adoption by the U~. 17 Am Jut 2d, "contracts," §§18-19, at 354-55.
We recognize that Mrs. T~ has recently stated her belief that she was capable of consenting to adoption during late 1969 and early 1970. However, in our estimation, a court would discount this subjective assessment in favor of the substantial, contemporaneous medical evidence to the contrary, in the event the validity of the agreement were to be challenged.