Board of Education of Montgomery County v. Browning
333 Md. 281, 635 A.2d 373 (1994)

  • Hamilton died leaving no will (intestate). She had no living relatives.
    • Browning was appointed Personal Representative.
  • Hamilton’s sister, Marian (who predeceased), had married Hutchison (also predeceased), who had a child (Paula) from a previous relationship. Marian never formally adopted Paula. But, Paula was like a niece to Hamilton.
  • Maryland law says that when someone dies intestate with no legal heirs, the estate is given to the county Board of Education.
    • The government taking an estate because there is no one alive to give it to is called an escheat.
  • Paula stepped forward and claimed the estate.
    • Paula claimed that she had been equitably adopted by Marian.
      • Equitable adoption is similar to common-law marriage, where people act as parent and child even though they never make it ‘official’.
  • The Trial Court found for Paula. Montgomery County appealed.
    • The Trial Court found that Paula was the adopted daughter of Marian.
    • The Trial Court found that Paula could inherit from her adoptive mother’s sister (her equitably adopted aunt).
  • The Maryland Supreme Court reversed.
    • The Maryland Supreme Court found that Paula could not inherit from her equitably adopted parent’s sister.
    • In general, equitably adopted persons can inherit from, but not through. So Paula could certainly inherit from Marian directly, but she cannot inherit through her relationship with Marian.
      • People who are statutorily adopted (legally adopted with signed forms and everything), can inherit through others, as if they were natural children
    • Paula unsuccessfully argued that even If this were true, there should be an exception in cases of escheat, where the money gets taken by the government because there is no living heir.
      • Is it right for the government to take the money considering that there is a relative willing to take the money?
  • This issue is a very popular question for bar exams.