Hill v. Nakai (In re Estate of Hannifin)

Decision Date20 September 2013
Docket NumberNo. 20111125.,20111125.
Citation740 Utah Adv. Rep. 13,311 P.3d 1016
PartiesIn the Matter of the ESTATE OF William J. HANNIFIN. Max Hill, as Special Administrator of the Estate, Appellant, v. Willis Nakai, individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate, Appellee.
CourtUtah Supreme Court


Charles M. Bennett, Salt Lake City, for appellant.

Donald J. Winder, Jerald V. Hale, Salt Lake City, for appellee.

Justice LEE authored the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice DURRANT and Associate Chief Justice NEHRING joined.

Justice DURHAM filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice PARRISH joined.

Justice LEE, opinion of the Court:

¶ 1 Max Hill, in his capacity as Special Representative of the Estate of William J. Hannifin, appeals from a district court order awarding Willis Nakai a portion of that estate. Though Nakai is neither biologically nor legally related to Hannifin, the district court determined that he was nonetheless entitled to inherit under the doctrine of equitable adoption.

¶ 2 We reverse. We hold that the doctrine of equitable adoption, first recognized in In re Williams' Estates, 10 Utah 2d 83, 348 P.2d 683 (1960), has been preempted by the detailed provisions of Utah's Probate Code. SeeUtah Code §§ 75–1–101 to –8–101. And, because Nakai does not qualify under the Probate Code's intestate succession provisions, we reverse the decision entitling him to inherit from Hannifin.


¶ 3 Willis Nakai is a member of the Navajo Nation. He was raised by his aunt from infancy to age five or six. After her death, he attended a series of boarding schools, though his biological parents were living and married to each other throughout his childhood. At one of these schools, the Intermountain Indian School (IIS) in Brigham City, Utah, Nakai met Father William J. Hannifin, an Episcopal priest.

¶ 4 In the summer of 1958, Hannifin had occasion to visit the Navajo Reservation near Aneth, Utah, where Nakai and his family were then residing. During this visit, Hannifin had a conversation with Nakai's mother and maternal grandparents, during which Nakai's mother asked Hannifin to take Nakai—who was fourteen years old at the time—and raise him as his own child. Hannifin agreed. Because Nakai's father was frequently away from home and not involved in family matters, he was not a party to this conversation.

¶ 5 Hannifin assumed this parental role when Nakai returned to IIS the following school year. Though Nakai subsequently made brief yearly visits to see his biological family, his parents did not assert parental control over him and did not support him financially. Instead, from that point forward, Hannifin provided Nakai an allowance, food, clothing, medical care, transportation, and emotional support. He monitored Nakai's schoolwork and generally provided for Nakai's health and welfare. Though Nakai initially boarded at IIS and visited Hannifin only on weekends and holidays, he began living with Hannifin full time after he developed health problems during his secondary education and continued to live there throughout his secondary and college education.

¶ 6 From Nakai's return to IIS in 1958–59 until the end of Hannifin's life, the two referred to each other as father and son and held themselves out to the community as such. Even after Nakai married and moved out of Hannifin's house, he and Hannifin maintained a close relationship, with Hannifin providing Nakai counsel and acting as if he were grandfather and great-grandfather to Nakai's children and grandchildren. Hannifin even arranged for many of his assets, including his life insurance policy, bank accounts, and investment accounts to be transferred to Nakai upon Hannifin's death.

¶ 7 Yet when Hannifin died in 2009, he was intestate and had no spouse and no biological descendants. Nakai, alleging that he and his family were Hannifin's only known heirs and devisees, petitioned to be appointed as Personal Representative of Hannifin's estate, which petition the district court granted.

¶ 8 Max Hill, acting on behalf of himself and nineteen other collateral relatives of Hannifin, petitioned the court to be appointed Special Administrator of Hannifin's estate for the limited purpose of contesting Nakai's claim to the estate. The court granted Hill's petition and, following a bench trial, held that under the doctrine of equitable adoption, Nakai was entitled “to inherit from Father Hannifin's estate as though he were his legally adopted son.” The district court also awarded Nakai attorney fees, which Hill opposed on the grounds that Nakai was not eligible to serve as Personal Representative.

¶ 9 Hill filed this appeal, arguing that Utah's enactment of the Probate Code preempted the common law doctrine of equitable adoption. That is a question of law, which we review de novo. See Navajo Nation v. State ( In re Adoption of A.B.), 2010 UT 55, ¶ 21, 245 P.3d 711.


¶ 10 We have long recognized the axiom “that our precedent must yield when it conflicts with a validly enacted statute.” Patterson v. Patterson, 2011 UT 68, ¶ 37, 266 P.3d 828. Statutes “may preempt the common law either by governing an area in so pervasive a manner that it displaces the common law” (field preemption) “or by directly conflicting with the common law” (conflict preemption). OLP, L.L.C. v. Burningham, 2009 UT 75, ¶ 16, 225 P.3d 177.1 Preemption may be indicated expressly, by a stated intent to preempt the common law. “More often,” however, “explicit pre-emption language does not appear, or does not directly answer the question. In that event, courts must consider whether the ... statute's structure and purpose or nonspecific statutory language nonetheless reveal a clear, but implicit, pre-emptive intent.” Bishop v. GenTec Inc., 2002 UT 36, ¶ 9, 48 P.3d 218 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 11 We have relied on “the federal model for determining whether federal law pre-empts state law” to determine “whether a state statute pre-empts the common law.” Id.; seeUtah Code § 68–3–2(1) (“The rule of the common law that a statute in derogation of the common law is to be strictly construed does not apply to the Utah Code.”). Under that model, [f]ield preemption occurs when the scope of a statute indicates that [the legislature] intended [a statute] to occupy a field” in such a way “as to make reasonable the inference that [the legislature] left no room for the [common law] to supplement it.” In re Adoption of A.B., 2010 UT 55, ¶ 31, 245 P.3d 711 (internal quotation marks omitted). Conflict preemption, on the other hand, “occurs where it is impossible ... to comply with both [the common law] and [a statute], or where [the common law] stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of [the legislature].” Id. ¶ 33 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted).

¶ 12 This notion of conflict preemption is reiterated in the Probate Code. Though the Code provides that “principles of ... equity supplement its provisions,” Utah Code § 75–1–103, it also contains an express caveat that principles of equity may not be invoked where they are “displaced by the particular provisions of th[e] code.” Id. A judge-made doctrine that conflicts with a statute is certainly “displaced” by it.2

¶ 13 We find the Code to displace the doctrine of equitable adoption recognized in Williams' Estates. In that case, a couple took a child into their home, agreeing with the birth mother that they would adopt the child and “raise, care for and treat [her] in all respects as their own child.” In re Williams' Estates, 10 Utah 2d 83, 348 P.2d 683, 685 (1960). Though they never formally adopted the child, they did raise her as their own. Id. at 684. And when the couple died intestate, the child claimed that she should be awarded the same share of the Williamses['] estate as she would have been entitled to had they ... fulfilled their agreement to adopt.” Id. We agreed that a child in that situation could possibly inherit through intestacy, noting that

[i]t is generally recognized that where a child's parents agree with the adoptive parents to relinquish all their rights to the child in consideration of the adopted parents' agreement to adopt such child, ... and such agreement is fully performed by all parties connected with such contract except there is no actual adoption, the courts will decree specific performance of such contract and thereby award to the child the same distributive share of the adoptive parents' estate as it would have been entitled to had the child actually been adopted as agreed.


¶ 14 In such circumstances, we determined that [a] contract to adopt ... may be proved by circumstantial evidence, but such evidence must be clear and convincing.” Id. at 684–85. Though we have not had occasion to opine on this doctrine since it was recognized, most other jurisdictions employing the doctrine have followed the same path, requiring claimants to prove the existence of an agreement to adopt. Modern Status of Law as to Equitable Adoption or Adoption by Estoppel, 122 A.L.R. 5th 205 (2012). Most also limit use of the doctrine to situations that benefit the equitably adopted child, meaning, for example, that the doctrine does not prevent the equitably adopted child from inheriting from natural parents, and typically cannot be used by an adoptive parent to inherit from the equitably adopted child. Id. Courts deem these and other similar restrictions proper “since equitable adoption is only an equitable remedy to enforce a contract right, is not intended or applied to create the legal relationship of parent and child, with all the legal consequences of such relationship, [and] is [not] meant to create a legal adoption.” Id.

¶ 15 The Probate Code, enacted fifteen years after we embraced equitable adoption in Williams' Estates, is in direct conflict with the doctrine in three principal respects: (A) Equitable...

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