SAN FRANCISCO — A California appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that prohibited extended descendants of two elderly women from claiming stake in their estates.
The family of Kazuko Uenaka filed suit claiming it was due a portion of the estate of Fusae and Emi Obata. The two elderly sisters were found dead in 2013. Reports say it was likely of natural causes. Both, age 94 and age 88, were never married nor did they have any children, according to local reports. Descendants of the sisters' father, the late Tomejiro Obata, argued in a lower state court that they were entitled to funds from the estate based on an old Japanese practice called yoshi-engumi, or adoption.
On September 26, 2018, the Court of Appeal of the State of California First Appellate District Division Three upheld a superior court ruling that said Kazuko Uenaka was entitled to funds from the estate under California law. The appellate court writing in part, "The sole issue on appeal is whether California law recognizes the Japanese practice called (yoshi-engumi) as an “adoption” within the meaning of California Probate Code. We conclude that it does and, thus, we shall affirm the trial court’s order granting respondents’ petitions for entitlement to estate distribution."
Yoshi-engumi can be defined as “the extended family or ‘house’" and usually is comprised of three generations of one family, according to court documents. "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."
In September following the sisters' death, Alameda County Superior Court issued letters of administration in both estates, according to the background portion of the appeals court's decision.
"Thereafter, a dispute arose regarding the line of succession that centered on the the Obata sister's father, Tomejiro Obata, and the impact of his yoshi-engumi by Minejiro Obata and Kiku Obata in 1911," the appeals court decision said. "Appellants are the descendants of Tomejiro’s biological parents, Hikozaemon Nakano and Haru Nakano, and respondents are the descendants of the Obata family."
In their appeal, the Nakanos challenged the trial court's September 2016 conclusion that found in favor of the Obata family members. The lower court concluded that California recognizes Tomejiro's Obata's yōshi-engumi as a legal adoption, enforceable under California's Probate Code.
The appeals court found that the lower court had properly granted the Uenaka's petition. "For purposes of intestate succession, under California law, the 1911 adoption severed the relationship between decedents’ father and his natural parents," the appeals court's decision said.
Appeals Court Justice Stuart R. Pollak wrote the court's decision, in which Justice Martin J. Jenkins and Judge Jeffrey Ross concurred. Judge Ross, on the bench of San Francisco Superior Court, sat in the appeals court's division through the end of this month.