April 29, 2015

The Harsh Consequences of Intestacy - Estate of Britel

Intestacy, the consequence of a person not writing a will, can result in harsh consequences. For example, the decedent might have despised an heir who otherwise inherits from their estate just for the sheer fact that the heir is next of kin. Or, the ostensible beneficiary does not fit within the statutory framework to qualify as an heir because of its rigidity. The latter arose in the following Court of Appeal decision. 

In re Estate of Britel, __ Cal.App.4th __ (2015)

The decedent, an Olympic cyclist, had a romantic relationship with the petitioner while the couple was at Harvard Business School. The two graduated in spring 2000 but parted ways. Later in summer 2000, petitioner revealed to the decedent that she was pregnant with the decedent's child.

To put it mildly, the decedent was not exactly thrilled. 

"Amine told his best friend, Youssef Choukri, that Jackie said she was pregnant with his baby, and that his having a child out of wedlock would bring shame to his family (who were highly regarded in Morocco) and might possibly cause Amine to be disinherited. Amine initially told Choukri he was not sure whether Jackie was really pregnant, but that he had told Jackie that if she was indeed pregnant, he would like her to have an abortion." 

The child was born in February 2001 but the decedent was not listed as the father on the child's birth certificate.  Furthermore, the petitioner "never sought a paternity order to determine whether Amine was A.S.'s father. Amine never provided any financial support to A.S., never met her, and never communicated with her."

In February 2011, the decedent was struck and killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle. At the time of his death, he was not married and lacked any estate planning documents. Therefore, the decedent died intestate. 

The petitioner sought to be appointed administrator and have the child declared the decedent's heir under Probate Code § 6453(b)(2). The result would be that the child would inherit all of the decedent's estate to the exclusion of the decedent's other relatives. 

The case's focus was the definition of Probate Code § 6453(b)(2), i.e. "paternity is established by clear and convincing evidence that the father has openly held out the child as his own." If the child could prove paternity, she would be considered the decedent's heir. However, the court's ruling went against her.

"We conclude section 6453(b)(2) requires an affirmative representation of paternity that is unconcealed and made in open view. But although the representation must be a public one, in the sense of being made in open view, the statute does not require an announcement to the world, an official action, or an affectionate fatherly intent."

Applying this holding to the facts of the case, the court found:

"Substantial evidence shows Amine never made an unconcealed affirmative representation of his paternity in open view. Prior to A.S.'s birth, Amine made it clear, in a private e-mail message to Jackie, that he could never tell his parents about the pregnancy; in other words, that he would conceal it from them. The court found Amine "maintained a close, open and loving relationship with his family." Yet, he never told them about the pregnancy or, later, the child. He told his best friend Choukri that Jackie had had an abortion, and never mentioned the matter again to Choukri. There is no evidence that after A.S.'s birth, Amine acknowledged paternity in any way. Indeed, in late 2006, less than four and one-half years before his death, Amine told Jackie not to contact him again and that he wanted nothing to do with her or A.S. In sum, substantial evidence supports the court's finding Amine did not openly hold out A.S. as his child." 

The tragic part of this case is that DNA testing showed a  99.9996% probability that the decedent was the child's father. However, DNA testing was irrelevant when interpreting the statute. This compelled one justice to urge the California state legislature to amend Probate Code § 6453 to incorporate DNA testing when establishing the parent and child relationship.