Court Upholds Traditional Japanese Adoption Laws in Estates of Sisters

Northern California is home to thousands of Japanese-Americans, many of whom retain strong familial ties to Japan.

This can pose some unique challenges when it comes to family law. As Japanese legal and cultural traditions often diverge significantly from American and western practices. Indeed, a recent decision by a California appeals court highlights the potential conflicts that may arise between the two countries.

On September 26, 2018, the California First District Court of Appeal issued a published opinion in a pair of probate lawsuits arising from the death of two Japanese-American sisters. The sisters, Fusae Obata and Emi Obata, died in Alameda County in 2013 without leaving a will or any immediate family members. Litigation then arose between two Japanese families over which had the right to inherit the sisters’ estates.

The source of the families’ disagreement was the 1911 yōshi-engumi (adoption) of the sisters’ father, Tomejiro Obata.

As the First District explained in its opinion; Japanese adoption “had a much wide meaning than in modern western nations.” Traditionally, Japanese houses without a male heir would arrange for the adoption of a successor from another family. Japan’s 19th century civil code incorporated this tradition into its adoption laws. Stating that an adopted child “acquires the status of a child in wedlock of his/her adopted parent(s) from the time of adoption.”

The descendants of Tomejiro Obata’s biological parents; Hikozaemon Nakano and Haru Nakano, argued that California law should not recognize the Japanese yoshi.

As it did not “satisfy the elemental characteristics of adoption recognized in California and the Western/American context. In other words, the Nakano descendants believed they should inherit the Obata sisters’ estates; as their father’s adoption was not valid under U.S. law.

But the First District disagreed, and ruled in favor of the Obata descendants.

California law recognizes a foreign adoption as valid if it complies with the laws of that country. And creates a “parent-child relationship for all purposes.” And for purposes of California’s intestate succession laws; that was enough to “sever” the legal inheritance rights of Tomejiro Obata’s biological parents and their descendants.

San Francisco family law attorney Terry A. Szucsko said the First District’s decision highlights the importance of estate planning.

Especially for individuals with living relatives in foreign countries. “Had the Obata sisters left a will, there would have been no need for the California courts to dive into the legal and cultural details of their father’s adoption. While every country handles probate differently; in the U.S. the law strongly encourages individuals to leave their own instructions through a will or trust. Intestacy should always be a last resort.” 

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