SAN FRANCISCO — A couple of months before his second birthday, Terrold Bean moved into his new home here. His foster parents converted him to Roman Catholicism and called him "son." He stayed until he was 20.
Bean called Catherine and Arthur Ford "Mom" and "Dad," and referred to their one biological child, Mary Catherine, as his sister. After the deaths of the women, Bean cared for his foster father in his old age.
But the law has yet to recognize these bonds of time and devotion. When Arthur Ford, Bean's foster father, died without a will, courts decided that his $640,000 estate should go to a niece and nephew who hadn't seen Ford in more than 15 years. Nor had they attended his funeral.
"I figured I was the son," said Bean, 49, who seeks to inherit the estate. "After a while, I was their son."
In a ruling that will determine the inheritance rights of nonbiological children such as Bean, the California Supreme Court is poised to decide whether a child who enters a home, becomes integrated with the family and enjoys a reciprocal relationship with nonbiological parents should be eligible to inherit after their death, as are blood offspring.
A decision in favor of Bean would permit individuals in his situation, including the nonbiological children of gays, to inherit when a parent dies without a will. Most people never make a will, and estates in such cases typically go to the closest biological relatives.
But opponents contend that giving unrelated children greater inheritance rights might unsettle foster parents and others who take kids into their homes and expect that unless they make a will directing otherwise, their estates will go only to their biological children. There are nearly 100,000 foster children in California.
"Anybody who takes in a child from an agency would be crazy," said Thomas J. Williams, who is representing Ford's niece and nephew. "They would be sticking their estate on the line."
Williams contends that Bean has marshaled no evidence that Ford wanted him to inherit his estate. The intentions of the deceased are typically key in such cases.
Most states recognize some degree of inheritance rights of nonbiological children who have not been formally adopted. Eleven states have no such doctrine.
California courts have awarded inheritance rights to individuals such as Bean over the decades, but never in a situation precisely like his. In the cases in which nonbiological children were permitted to inherit, the parents had either tried to legally adopt, presented the child to outsiders as their adopted offspring or had told the child that he or she had been adopted.
There are no records to show that the Fords ever intended to adopt Bean, even though Bean's biological mother lost all rights to him when he was 3 years old. The Fords did not change his last name and never promised him the wealth they accumulated over their lifetimes.
But Bean said the Fords were his parents.
"There are a lot of situations where people don't want to adopt," said Patrick Sullivan, Bean's lawyer. "They're intimidated by the social welfare system. And a lot of people are not going to want to submit to intrusive investigations or the expense."
A trial court and an appeals court have already ruled that Bean may not inherit because there was no clear and convincing evidence that the Fords ever intended to adopt him.
"The fact that the Fords retained Terrold in their home for 16 years without making him available for adoption by someone else is not, in and of itself, a public acknowledgment of an intent to adopt," the trial judge ruled.
Bean, a butcher who lives in Oakland, grew up in a one-story stucco home in a middle-class neighborhood here with his foster mother, an Irish immigrant; her husband, a Teamster; and his foster sister, Mary Catherine.
The Fords had always wanted more children and took in foster children over the years to compensate, Bean said. About 20 children entered and left the Ford home over the years. Only Bean stayed.
Bean recalled that couples eager to adopt would come to the Ford home to see the children. His mother, he said, never wanted him in the house during those visits. He said she would tell him to go to a schoolyard a few blocks away and play for a couple of hours.
There were times when he wondered if the Fords would ever try to find him adoptive parents.
"It crossed my mind," he said, seated in his lawyer's small office in downtown Oakland. "But I never asked questions of my parents. I was very quiet."
He said he "didn't want to push any buttons." And he did not want to hear that they would ever give him up. "If it was a negative answer, I didn't want to know."
San Francisco County records on Bean are scarce. The Fords did not list him in their registry of foster children, a booklet in which they named the other foster children who came and went. No one knows why.