gavel A recent decision handed down by the Appellate Division in an estate litigation matter serves as a reminder of the all-too-frequent intersection of family law and trusts and estates law. The fact that this case, In the Matter of the Estate of Douglas Castellano and the Parentage of Gregory Bock, is a published decision only further underscores its importance in matters related to paternity, divorce, adoption and intestacy.

I am particularly fond of cases with fact patterns that read more like an episode of Jerry Springer than something you’d typically find in a legal text.  In this case, a woman, Elisa, ended a two year relationship with her partner, Douglas, and married a man named Gregory two months later.  Seven months after the marriage, Elisa gave birth to a child, Greg, Jr.  The child was named after Greg, Sr., who was listed as the father on the child’s birth certificate, despite the fact that Greg, Sr., knew he was not the father and that Douglas was well aware he was the father.

When Greg, Jr., was barely three years old, Greg, Sr., and Elisa divorced.  Greg, Sr., was granted visitation of the child and paid Elisa $80 per week in support.  Even so, Greg, Sr.’s relationship with Greg, Jr., tapered off and he only saw the child approximately two times per year until Greg, Sr., died when the child was a teenager. The child only learned the identity of his biological father from his mother at the age of 30. Following that reveal, Greg, Jr., and Douglas had a casual relationship, consisting of occasional phone calls and even fewer visits.  The relationship never blossomed further and Douglas was tragically murdered 8 years later in 2016.  Given his unexpected and untimely death, Douglas passed without a will.

Aside from Greg, Jr., Douglas’ only living relatives were his siblings. When they sought letters of administration for Douglas’ estate, Greg, Jr., filed a caveat which prompted their lawsuit. Under the intestacy laws, if Douglas died with no spouse, no children, and no living parents, his estate would pass to his siblings. If, however, Douglas was found to have descendants (in this case, children) the siblings would not be entitled to inherit.

On a motion for summary judgment, the trial court declared that as a matter of law, Greg, Jr. was Douglas’ sole descendant and therefore entitled to inherit from the estate. The siblings appealed, asserting that the trial judge failed to give sufficient weight to a presumption under the New Jersey parentage act, which declares a “man is presumed to be the biological father of a child if… [h]e and the child’s biological mother are or have been married to each other and the child is born during the marriage”.  The Appellate Division rejected this argument and affirmed the ruling below.

In so holding, the court found that the only question was whether Greg, Jr., was Douglas’ descendant.  Because a DNA test conclusively established paternity as such, the case could have been rather simple. However, the siblings raised the novel argument that given the statutory presumption that Greg, Sr., was the child’s father, representations about the child’s paternity during Elisa and Greg, Sr.’s divorce, and principles of equitable adoption, summary judgment was premature and improper.

As far as the statutory presumption of parentage, the court found that it was unequivocally overcome by the DNA test.  Moreover, the parentage act was designed to “facilitate the flow of benefits from the father to the child,” and not sever a biological link.

Under the theory of equitable adoption as argued by the siblings, Greg, Jr., should have been considered “equitably adopted” by Greg Sr., and therefore not the descendant of Douglas, given the the child’s treatment and representation as Greg, Sr.’s child at birth and during the divorce.  The court found this argument unconvincing and concluded that this case lacked the gravitas found in earlier cases which have utilized the remedy of equitable adoption.  Specifically, the court found that while Greg, Jr., took Elisa’s husband’s name, who was listed on the birth certificate, none of that was within Greg, Jr.’s control. Moreover, he was a toddler when Elisa divorced and had no input in the content of her judgment of divorce.  Indeed, the court found that the child’s fleeting relationship with Greg, Sr., after the divorce was insufficient to sever the irrefutable, biological link to Douglas. Moreover, the court opined that principles of equitable adoption have been historically employed to protect and enforce inheritance rights between parent and child, not destroy them.

The court boiled down the siblings’ case to the argument that the principles of intestacy should not apply because they had a stronger relationship with Douglas than Greg, Jr., did.  In a wholesale rejection of this argument, the court made plain that the laws of intestacy do not make such an exception simply because one relative knows the deceased better than the other.  The court concluded its opinion with the oft-cited reminder in estate litigation matters that if the decedent had intended a different result than that which the law provides, he could have (and should have) executed a will to that effect.

This case provides a cautionary tale for anyone who desires to have their estate pass in a manner inconsistent with the default rules laid down by the legislature. This is especially true for individuals who know they have legally unrecognized children who might pose an unwelcome surprise for loved ones in the event of an untimely death. For everyone else, it is a reminder that compelling circumstances are required to apply the principles of equitable adoption and formalizing relationships is the best way to predict how your relatives will be treated in family law and estate matters.

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Katherine A. Nunziata, Associate, Fox Rothschild LLPKatherine A. Nunziata is an associate in the firm’s Family Law practice, based in the Morristown, NJ office. You can reach Katherine at (973-548-3324) or at knunziata@foxrothschild.com.

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