Getting All the Heirs Aboard

February 13, 2014 § 4 Comments

Since 2010, it has been the common practice across the state for chancellors to require an heirship determination in intestate estates (some chancellors require it in testate estates also).

That’s because MCA 91-1-29 specifically requires it, as does MCA 91-7-293.

Most attorneys accomplish the requirement by filing a petition to determine heirs, publishing process for unknown heirs.

So, you have opened the estate and had your administratrix qualified. You joined the three siblings, and you have started publishing notice in the local newspaper for unknown heirs. Have you and your fiduciary done all that the law requires?

Not necessarily.

In the case of Estate of Thomas v. Thomas, 883 So.2d 1173, 1177 (Miss. 2004), the MSSC said this:

¶ 12. Under Mississippi case law, the administratrix of an estate is under a duty to use reasonable diligence to ascertain potential heirs. Smith ex rel. Young v. Estate of King, 579 So.2d 1250, 1252 (Miss.1991). See also In re Estate of Johnson, 705 So.2d 819, 822 (Miss.1996). Another duty of the administratrix is to provide notice to known or reasonably ascertainable illegitimate children who are potential heirs and whose claims would be barred if the 90-day statutory time period had run. King, 579 So.2d at 1253. Under Mississippi law, an administratrix acts as a fiduciary for all persons interested in the estate. Shepherd v. Townsend, 249 Miss. 383, 162 So.2d 878, 881 (1964). The administratrix has this duty of notice by statute. Miss.Code Ann. § 91-1-29 (Rev.2004). In King, as here, the administratrix failed to notify the court of a reasonably ascertainable heir and failed to notify the heirs that the paternity claims would be barred if not timely filed.

MCA 91-1-15(3)(c) is a statute of limitations for claims of illegitimates against an estate, and in most circumstances that limitation does not begin to run until the illegitimate receives actual notice( be sure to read this statute).

So, let’s say that your client, the administratrix, actually knows that the decedent had an illegitimate child. If she conceals that fact from you, and it later comes to light, the administration of the estate, including any final judgment, closing, and disbursement, is subject to a finding of fraud on the court and consequent setting aside. And … there is no time limit on an action to set aside a judgment for fraud on the court.

Likewise, if you and your fiduciary do not do due diligence to discover any illegitimates, your administration of the estate is in jeopardy from later claims of illegitimates who say that they were not properly noticed.

How do you protect yourself and the heirs? Some suggestions:

  • Grill your client about who all the heirs might be, and ask whether there are any “outside children.” Ask if there has even been a suspicion that there might be illegitimates, and ascertain not only who they might be, but also who might be the father, the grandparents, aunts, uncles, or persons with knowledge. Investigate, make contact, ask questions.
  • Get your client to sign an affidavit you can file with the court spelling out what knowledge the fiduciary has as to any illegitimates, and the diligent search and inquiry that has been done to identify and contact them.
  •  As a further measure of internal protection, you might want to compose a letter to your client recounting what he or she told you about illegitimates, and itemizing the efforts made to identify and contact them. Then have your client sign a file copy acknowledging receipt.
  • Sometimes it happens that a person believed to be an illegitimate heir disclaims the heirship or any interest in the estate. If possible, get that person to sign a disclaimer of heirship and any interest in the estate, and file it with the court. If he or she refuses, have personal process served.
  • If you unearth certain or purported illegitimate heirs, have them personally served with process and notice per MCA 91-1-15(3)(c) that his or claims will be barred unless filed within the statutory time.
  • Be sure to include the names of any known or purported illegitimate heirs in your petition for determination of heirship and publication notice. Ask the court to adjudicate them not to be heirs unless they file a timely action per MCA 91-1-15(3)(c).    

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