Establishing a legal precedent, a Spokane County judge has ruled that the three illegally adopted sons of Kitty Oakes and Billy Tipton can inherit equal shares of her $300,000 estate.
Today’s ruling by Superior Court Judge Michael Price ends one of the most unusual probate cases in state history, involving hidden identities, child abuse, forged documents and a web of lies, according to court documents and testimony in this week’s bench trial.
Kathleen “Kitty” Tipton Oakes was a former stripper known as the “Irish Venus” who lived as bandleader Tipton’s wife in Spokane from 1962 until they separated in 1980. Oakes remarried in 1984 and later divorced. Tipton died in 1989 – when paramedics discovered the prominent jazz musician who’d lived as a man was actually a woman.
The revelation triggered a media frenzy – plus shock and anger for the three sons who thought Tipton was their father. Two of the sons changed their names soon after learning of Tipton’s ruse.
Oakes was 73 when she died last year after being forced out of her Manito Boulevard home in 2006 by cancer and dementia. The estate proceeds come from the sale of her home after she became a ward of the state, spending her last months at Eastern State Hospital.
In closing arguments, Lynn St. Louis, attorney for the personal representative of Oakes’ estate, told Price there are “compelling facts” to allow the three sons to inherit under the doctrine of “equitable adoption” – a legal theory not generally used in Washington state.
Washington law bars illegally adopted children not named in a will from inheriting out of fears that they’d be able to collect inheritances from two sets of parents.
But the case of Jonathan Clark, Scott L. Miller and William A.Tipton is unique, and the sons should not be penalized for their parents’ deceit, St. Louis said.
Oakes and Tipton “brought into their home three boys. The natural mothers apparently relinquished custody, yet none are legally adopted. None of these boys were Kitty’s biological child. Each testified they knew they had a biological mom who wasn’t Kitty. But the Tiptons were a family … Billy was dad; Kitty, mom,” St. Louis said.
In his ruling from the bench, Price agreed.
“Until trial, the court didn’t grasp the incredible life ramifications the Tipton children had dealt with … they should know that they did nothing wrong here. They just tried as best they could to live with the hand they were dealt,” Price said.
The three men will inherit equal shares of the estate, minus appropriate lawyers’ fees, to be ruled on at a presentment on Dec. 19.
Price showed “wisdom and courage in this case of first impression,” St. Louis said after the judge’s ruling.
“There is a God after all,” Clark told his lawyer following the verdict. He and Miller declined further comment. Tipton, the youngest son, said he was happy with the verdict and would use the money to “pay off a few debts.”
Earlier in the probate, Tipton had claimed he was the sole son who should inherit because he was the only one with a birth certificate. But the Oregon document, which listed Oakes as his biological mother, proved fraudulent; Price ordered Tipton to undergo DNA testing, which proved he was not Oakes’ biological son.
A photograph Oakes kept at her bedside as her health declined at a nursing home was shown to Price and displayed on the witness stand during this week’s testimony.
It shows a happy, 1970s-era South Hill family; Kitty, the scout den mother; Billy, the smiling father, the teenage boys and little William, dressed in his Cub Scout uniform, who had just won a national art award.
For awhile, the photo and reality coincided, at least in part.
In their testimony, the sons recalled how they joined the Tipton family as infants in the 1960s and were later told they were adopted. They recalled big Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, Scouting, church on Easter and camping trips to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
But in their teenage years, the family façade began to crack. Oakes, prone to violent temper tantrums, became a child abuser, Clark and Miller said. She screamed at them and beat them with belts. Billy Tipton, who by then was booking music acts from an office at the Davenport Hotel, wasn’t home during the day.
“My mother was abusive – physically and mentally. We couldn’t wait for dad to get home,” Clark said.
Sick of being beaten, the older boys left home and Billy Tipton joined them, setting up a new household in the Spokane Valley. When William, known as “Little Billy,” was 11, his mother called Tipton, telling him to come to the house and pick up their youngest son.
“She threw me out the back door. I didn’t see her for three or four years,” Tipton, 39, recalled in his testimony.
The boys didn’t learn Tipton’s foremost secret – that their father was in fact a woman – until the musician’s death in 1989.
After the publicity about their father, which included a screen play, an opera and a biography, the boys learned other aspects of their lives were also illusions.
They learned they weren’t legally adopted. They already had some shards of information about their birth mothers.
William Tipton, 39, said he was told his biological mother was named Sharon and she’d died of a drug overdose.
When he was 16, Clark said he learned something startling: Tipton told him his biological mother was a South Hill neighbor who gave him chocolate chip cookies when he played with her son – his real brother. When he was about 10, Kitty Oakes forbade him from playing with the other boy any more, Clark recalled.
He changed his name to Clark – his birth name – from John Thomas Tipton the day after Tipton’s funeral.
“If you can’t trust your parents, who can you trust?” Clark said on the witness stand.
Scott Miller, 45, said he didn’t learn the identity of his birth mother until after his 1986 wedding. Now a Boise businessman, he said Billy Tipton liked his wife and confided in her about his mother’s identity. He was named Scott Lee Johnson at birth and renamed Scott Paul Tipton by Oakes and Tipton.
Among the documents collected for the probate: letters from his birth mother sent to Billy Tipton at his Davenport Hotel office in 1966 and 1967 inquiring into the welfare of her child. She had relinquished him at a hospital in Colorado, according to a notarized but undated document located for the probate.
Miller said he was living in Spokane in 1989 when the news of Tipton’s death broke. His first child had just been born. Traumatized by the news, he moved away.
In his testimony, Miller became emotional, saying he’s strived to give his children a happy life. “I make sure everything that was done to me isn’t done to them. … I give them what I never had,” he said.
During his testimony, William Tipton was able to give his side of an Adult Protective Services order that ousted him from Oakes’ home in 2004 after he’d moved back in with his wife and three children.
Oakes was getting divorced and asked him to help her care for the large house, Tipton said.
But when he got there, she became abusive, telling him not to touch anything. She told state investigators he was stealing from her, triggering the state investigation.
“I didn’t realize how bad she was mentally. She got worse after we moved in,” Tipton said. She accused him of “robbing her blind,” he said. The state sided with Oakes, evicting him from her home.
After Oakes’ death, the three sons were contacted by an investigator for her estate. They were informed there was money they might stand to inherit and were advised to retain lawyers for the probate.
If their claims had not held up, a scattered clan of paternal uncles and cousins in the Midwest and South stood to inherit Oakes’ estate as “second tier” heirs.