The California Court of Appeals holds that a biological father cannot inherit from his daughter because, although he attended a family court mediation and paid child support, he never acknowledged her as his child. In Westamerica Bank v. Morales (Cal. Ct. App., No. A165492, February 24, 2023).

Ms. Gabriella Morales dated Mr. Ovalles and became pregnant. When she told him about the pregnancy, he advised her to end the pregnancy and stopped contact with her. The baby, Miss Olivia Morales, suffered a traumatic birth injury and sustained severe disabilities. After the birth, Ms. Morales called Mr. Ovalles and asked for help. He responded that he did want any involvement.

When Ms. Morales filed for custody of her daughter, Mr. Ovalles claimed he was not certain he was the father. Through mediation, they agreed that Ms. Morales would retain sole custody and Mr. Ovalles would have no visitation. The court ordered Mr. Ovalles to pay child support, which he supplied via wage garnishment.

Miss Morales received a settlement from a lawsuit filed on her behalf. The proceeds went to the Olivia Morales Special Needs Trust. Westamerica Bank served as the trustee. The trust provided that, upon dissolution, the remaining balance would go to her intestate heirs.

After Miss Morales was diagnosed with leukemia, Ms. Morales called Mr. Ovalles and informed him. He did not visit his daughter before she died.

Probate Code Section 6452 states that a biological parent who does not acknowledge their child cannot inherit from the child. Relying on this provision, Ms. Morales informed Westamerica Bank that Mr. Ovalles was not an heir to her daughter. Westamerica sought the court’s guidance.

The probate court ruled that Section 6452 did not apply. According to the probate court, Mr. Ovalles acknowledged his daughter by mediating custody and visitation and paying child support. Ms. Morales appealed.

On appeal, the court finds that Section 6452 bars Mr. Ovalles from inheriting. He did not acknowledge Miss Morales.

The probate court misapplied Estate of Griswold (Cal. S087881, June 21, 2001). In Griswold, the California Supreme Court held that a parent needed to do more than provide financial support to acknowledge a child. The parent in Griswold publicly acknowledged the child, whereas Mr. Ovalles maintained during mediation that he was uncertain whether he was the father.

Under Estate of Ginochio (Cal. Ct. App., No. 33996, November 22, 1974), voluntary acknowledgment of paternity is unnecessary for the court to order child support. Participating in a paternity hearing is not enough to show that an individual acknowledged paternity.

Little weight goes to Mr. Ovalles’ reference to himself as “father” in his petition to terminate child support because Miss Morales had died. The relevant date for determining heirs is the decedent’s death.

He also did not conclusively acknowledge Miss Morales before her death when he engaged in family court mediation. Mr. Ovalles could have participated in mediation to avoid formally declaring paternity.

As Mr. Ovalles’ failure to acknowledge Miss Morales disinherits him, the appellate court reverses and remands the case.

Read the full opinion here.