WRONGFUL DEATH AND THE ERRANT FATHER
June 28, 2012 § 1 Comment
In 1988, Catherine LePori gave birth to a son, Brandon, without benefit of marriage. In 2001, DHS filed an action against Alton Welch to establish paternity of the child. For reasons unexplained in the record, no judgment was entered until 2007. Those are the barebones facts that underlie the COA decision in LePori v. Welch, decided June 26, 2012.
We can deduce from the record that Alton never paid any significant child support during the pendency of or after that DHS suit, and that he did not develop any significant relationship with the boy.
In March, 2008, Brandon was was working in a sewer line when it caved in and he was killed. He was nineteen at the time.
In March, 2009, Catherine filed suit to terminate Alton’s parental rights posthumously, expressly for the purpose of preventing Alton from having any interest in a wrongful-death suit she had filed. Alton had filed a motion to intervene in the wrongful-death action.
The chancellor dismissed Catherine’s petition for failure to state a claim, and she appealed.
In its decision, the COA noted that the statutes providing for termination of parental rights (MCA 93-15-103, et al.), are concerned with the best interest of the child, not the parents or survivors. Thus, if the child is deceased the statute logically no longer applies. The court held that the statute is not to be applied posthumously.
Catherine argued that dismissal of her termination case would unjustly enrich Alton, whom, she alleged, had caused substantial erosion of the parent-child relationship. Judge Maxwell’s opinion pointed out, however, that MCA 91-1-15(3)(d)(i) provides that the natural father must have “openly treated the child as his, and ha[ve] not refused or neglected to support the child” in order to inherit. That code section is incorporated into the Wrongful Death Act (MCA 11-17-13).
Based on the code sections, Judge Maxwell pointed out that Catherine could have filed an action to determine Brandon’s heirs at law in his estate, and pled 91-1-15 as a basis to adjudicate that he had no interest. Or, Judge Maxwell noted, she could have pled the statute to argue against Alton’s motion to intervene in the circuit court action.
This is an interesting case that has implications beyond its apparently narrow focus. When you’re confronted with issues such as this, don’t get tunnel vision and limit yourself to one way to go. Keep your eye on the big picture and consider how all the component parts fit together.