by Dan Conlisk
A primary focus of estate planning is passing one’s assets to his or her descendants. Normally, who qualifies as a “descendant” – typically children and grandchildren – is clear. In some circumstances, however, it is anything but. One such case is In the Matter of the Charles H. Stix Testamentary Trust dated August 17, 1945 and the Clara F. Stix Testamentary Trust dated April 20, 1943, 2015 WL 1915279 (Mo. Ct. App. 2015). In Stix, in the context of very complex facts, the court considered when a non-biological child is considered a “descendent” for estate and trust purposes.
Stix involved two multi-generational trusts created in the 1940’s (the “Trusts”). Id. at *1. By 2012, under the then-controlling provisions, Ann Stix Grace was the sole lifetime beneficiary of the Trusts. Id. Upon Ann’s death, the Trusts were to be divided among her living children or, if a child had already passed, to his or her descendants. Id. Ann’s son Robert Grace died before her. Id. Robert left a non-biological son, Justin Grace. Id. Robert’s two brothers and sister (the “Siblings”) challenged Justin’s status as a descendant entitled to a share of the trust. They argued that, because Justin was not Robert’s biological son, he was not a descendant.
In March 1985, Robert and Susan Martin married. Id. In October 1985, Justin was born in the state of Washington. Id. Although he was not Robert’s biological son, Robert was listed on the birth certificate as Justin’s father. Id. In October 1988, Robert and Susan divorced in Washington. Id. The divorce court in Washington issued a dissolution judgment (the “Divorce Judgment”) making various findings of fact, including that Justin was born “as a result of this marriage.” Id. Susan received primary custody of Justin and Robert was granted liberal visitation rights. Id.
Robert died six years later, when Justin was eight years old. Robert left nothing to Justin in his will. Id. Through a guardian ad litem (the “Guardian”), Justin asserted a claim to an award in lieu of homestead under Washington law (the “Washington Litigation”) so as to receive a portion of Robert’s estate. Id. In settling that claim, the Guardian agreed to acknowledge that Justin was not Robert’s biological son even though he was born during Robert and Susan’s marriage. Id.
Against this background, when Ann died, the trustee of the Trusts filed a Petition in Missouri Probate Court requesting that the court determine whether Justin was Robert’s descendant entitled to a share of the Trusts’ proceeds. Id. at *2. The Probate Court found that Justin was Robert’s descendant, and the Siblings appealed. Id. The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that Justin was Robert’s descendant and qualified as a beneficiary of the Trusts. Id. at *4.
In reaching this conclusion, the court first reasoned that, under longstanding Missouri law (and Washington law), a child born during a marriage “is legally presumed to be the husband’s offspring for all purposes, including matters of probate and inheritance.” Id. at *2.
Second, the court emphasized that, in the Washington Divorce Judgment, the divorce court found that Justin was Robert’s son. Id. at *3. No one challenged this paternity determination until six years later, after Robert had died. Id. Further, the court rejected the Siblings’ argument that the Washington Divorce Judgment was conclusive only for purposes of child support and custody issues, and did not control probate issues in Missouri. Id. Relying on case law dating back to 1920, the court held that Robert’s acknowledgement of paternity, both in the Washington divorce proceedings and on Justin’s birth certificate, was binding for all purposes. Id.
Third, the Siblings argued that Justin’s acknowledgement, through his guardian ad litem in the Washington Litigation, that he was not Robert’s biological child negated the Divorce Judgment’s finding of paternity. Id. The court rejected this argument, holding that “[t]his acknowledgment does not negate the earlier parentage adjudication in the Washington [Divorce Judgment]. The litigation surrounding Robert’s estate was not an adjudication of [Justin’s] parentage and no court except the Washington [Divorce Court] ruled on the issue.” Id. at *3. Thus, the finding of parentage by the Washington Divorce Court was binding on the Missouri Probate Court.
Finally, the Siblings argued that their Due Process rights had been violated because – although their property interests in the Trusts were affected by the litigation of Robert’s parentage in the Washington Divorce Court – they did not have the opportunity to participate in the litigation. Id. at *4. In rejecting this claim, the court held that “‘the purported economic right to become eligible for an unspecified share of trust proceeds occupies a lower place in the hierarchy of rights as compared to a putative father’s right to the parent-child relationship.’” Id. quoting In re Trust Created by Agreement Dated Dec. 20, 1961, 765 A.2d 746, 759 (N.J. 2001).
Based upon all of this, the court concluded that Justin “is Robert’s legal child, both by presumption and as adjudicated by the Washington [Divorce Court]. [Siblings] cannot relitigate the matter decades later.” 2015 WL 1915279 at *4. Accordingly, Justin was a descendant entitled to Robert’s share of the Trusts.
As in most estate and trust litigation, the underlying facts in Stix were complicated and the legal issues complex. In such cases, knowledgeable and experienced counsel is vital.