Probable intent vs. certainty: the Missouri Probate Court and the Uniform Probate Code.

Author:Pierce, Stephanie
 
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  1. INTRODUCTION

    Intestate succession statutes are difficult to design--they must be definite enough to ensure judicial efficiency, yet also match the average decedent's probable intent. (1) With the ever-changing family dynamic, it is difficult for these statutes to keep up, and it is likely impossible for them to stay ahead.

    This Note seeks to address how increasingly complex family situations should impact intestacy statutes. In In re Brockmire, the Supreme Court of Missouri specifically addressed what occurs when a decedent predeceases his biological granddaughter and his biological daughter, who had been adopted as an adult by her stepfather. (2) Unfortunately, the court, bound by statute, was unable to even contemplate a remedy consistent with the probable intent of the decedent. (3)

    In addressing this complex set of family circumstances, this Note will first take an in-depth look into Missouri intestacy law. Additionally, this Note will address and analyze the different approaches of other states, as well as the approach taken by the Uniform Probate Code, and will compare each of those methods to the applicable Missouri statutes. This Note argues that the current Missouri intestacy statutes are antiquated and need to be reformed to match the standards set forth by the Uniform Probate Code.

  2. FACTS AND HOLDING

    Lonnie Brockmire ("Decedent") died intestate (4) on July 18, 2011. (5) Decedent was not survived by a spouse or a parent. Decedent was, however, survived by his brother, Ronald, his biological daughter, Sherri, and Sherri's biological daughter, Decedent's granddaughter, Bella. (6) Sherri brought this suit on behalf of Bella in hopes of receiving a portion of Decedent's estate. (7) The Probate Division of the Circuit Court of Cape Girardeau County granted partial distribution of Decedent's estate to Bella, a decision Ronald successfully appealed. (8)

    Ronald's appeal was based on his contention that Bella was not a legal heir of Decedent. (9) Ronald argued that because Sherri's stepfather had adopted Sherri prior to Decedent's death, the legal relationship between Decedent and Sherri had severed. (10)

    Ronald's argument was based on two Missouri probate statutes. (11) Ronald first cited Missouri Revised Statutes Section 474.010(2), which provides that a decedent's intestate estate will be distributed to the decedent's descendants only if the decedent's child predeceases (12) his descendants. (13) Ronald stated that even if Bella's legal relationship with Decedent had not dissolved, Bella would have only been able to inherit from Decedent if Sherri had predeceased Bella. (14) Additionally, Ronald cited to Missouri Revised Statutes Section 474.060(1), which states that adoptees may only inherit from their adoptive parents. (15) Ronald contended, and the court confirmed, that once Sherri was adopted, Bella "lost her status as a descendant of [Decedent's] child." (16) This meant that neither Sherri nor Bella could receive any portion of Decedent's estate. (17)

    Sherri countered with several arguments to persuade the court that the Probate Division's distribution of Decedent's estate was proper. (18) Sherri first stated that the terms contained in Sections 474.010(1) and (2) were in conflict. (19) The term "issue" is used within the statute to limit the portion of the intestate estate distributed to a spouse and, subsequently, the phrase "children or their descendants" is used when discussing distribution of a decedent's property when there is no surviving spouse. (20) Sherri argued that this created a conflict because an "issue," which encompasses a larger group of individuals, was able to inherit when there was a surviving spouse, but only "children or their descendants" could inherit when there was no surviving spouse. (21) Because the term "issue" is broader than "children or their descendants" by definition, Sherri stated that Bella would have been able to inherit if "issue" had been used in Section 474.010(2) in lieu of "children or their descendants." (22) Sherri additionally argued the legislature's intent when invoking the phrase "children or their descendants" must have been to clarify that the first generation is required to inherit before any subsequent generations. (23)

    Sherri also contended that Section 474.060 should not impact Bella. (24) Sherri noted that the statute referenced the elimination of a legal relationship between an adoptee and her biological parents, but made no mention of an adoption's effect upon an adopted person's pre-existing children. (25) Sherri further noted that had it been the legislature's intent to eliminate the grandparent and grandchild's legal relationship, they easily could have done so. (26)

    Beyond statutory construction, Sherri argued that the court must look beyond the wording of intestacy statutes when determining the legislature's intent. (27) Citing to Missouri adoption statutes, Sherri argued that the removal of Bella as a legal heir of Decedent frustrated the purposes of Missouri law. (28) Sherri cited Missouri Revised Statutes Section 452.402 in support of her proposition, which permits grandparents to be awarded visitation time to grandchildren; in the case of an adopted grandchild, a grandparent's visitation rights are not automatically or explicitly terminated upon adoption. (29)

    Additionally, Sherri tried to combat Ronald's contention that Section 474.010 forbade Bella from receiving a distribution of Decedent's intestate estate, regardless of adoption, because Sherri had not predeceased Decedent. (30) Sherri attempted to persuade the court to treat her as though she had pre-deceased Decedent under the statute and find that Bella must be treated as an heir because the adoption did not eliminate Bella from Decedent's "biological line." (31)

    Lastly, if the Probate Division's ruling was overturned, Sherri argued, it would violate Bella's due process rights. (32) Without citing any case law, Sherri concluded that all individuals have a vested right in their legal bloodline at birth. (33) Sherri stated that her adoption wrongly deprived Bella of her "vested right of a relation to ... Decedent as a descendant of the child." (34)

    The Missouri Court of Appeals for the Eastern District heard Ronald's appeal of the Probate Division's decision. (35) The court of appeals first looked to Section 474.060's definition of "child" for the purposes of intestate succession. (36) The statute declares that an adopted person ceases to be the legal child of the biological parent upon adoption; (37) meaning, once Sherri's stepfather adopted her, she was no longer Decedent's legal child or heir. (38) Because Sherri is not Decedent's legal child under the intestacy statute, Bella was likewise not the legal grandchild of Decedent. (39)

    The court of appeals did not give credence to Sherri's argument that Missouri's intestacy statute was in conflict with itself. (40) Without providing a contrary interpretation, the court of appeals stated that Bella was not a lawful heir of Decedent, which made any conflict in the statute irrelevant. (41) The court of appeals also looked to Missouri adoption statutes, which take the "substitution approach," meaning an adopted child "becomes the child of its adopting parents for every purpose...." (42) Additionally, the court of appeals dismissed Sherri's argument that an outcome adverse to Bella would thwart the legislature's intent. (43) The court of appeals stated that it "need not look at the 'general purpose of intestacy statutes'" as Sherri requested because the plain language of both the intestacy and adoption statutes demonstrated that Bella was not a legal heir of Decedent. (44)

    Lastly, the court of appeals rejected Sherri's argument that Bella's due process rights had been violated. (45) The court of appeals stated that this argument had no merit or support. (46) Further, there can be no "vested legal right" in a bloodline for the purposes of intestate succession, as Missouri statutes state that a bloodline can be substituted for legal purposes. (47) The court of appeals concluded by holding that, for the above reasons, the Probate Division's determination was unsupported and made Ronald the sole legal heir of Decedent's estate. (48)

    Coming to the same ultimate conclusion as the court of appeals, the Supreme Court of Missouri held that Ronald was the sole legal heir of Decedent because distribution of Decedent's intestate estate must be based on statutory construction alone. (49) The court similarly found no merit behind Sherri's argument that Bella "had a vested legal right to her bloodline." (50) The court enunciated that because expectant heirs have no vested interest until death, Bella had no right to lose. (51) The court stated that, under Missouri's intestate statutes, once a descendant is adopted, the legal relationship between the descendant and her biological parent is destroyed--even when the descendant was adopted by their stepparent. (52) Subsequently, the severance of the legal relationship between a biological father and daughter destroys the legal relationship between the biological father and any of the daughter's children or her descendants. The Supreme Court of Missouri stated that under Missouri probate law, adoption severs all legal ties between the parent and biological child, eliminating all intestate succession rights. (53)

  3. LEGAL BACKGROUND

    This Part will first look at the history of adoption in Missouri and address many important changes within both Missouri adoption and Missouri probate statutes that have occurred over the past century. Additionally, this Part will analyze the trend of acceptance, and even endorsement, of adoption in Missouri, and in particular how the adoption statutes have evolved to become more favorable toward adopted children and adoptive parents alike.

    This Part will also look at the Uniform Probate Code's ("UPC") treatment of the effect of adoption on inheritance and the...

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