The Effect of Termination of Parental Rights on Wrongful Death Beneficiary Status

March 6, 2019 § Leave a comment

DeForest filed a petition in chancery court to have himself declared to be the sole wrongful death beneficiary of his father, Underhill, who had been killed in a trucking accident in Mississippi. DeForest’s petition was contested by Underhill’s brother, Alexander, who took the position that DeForest’s claim was defeated by the fact that Underhill’s parental rights to DeForest had been voluntarily terminated in Michigan in 1983 as part of an adoption action filed by Underhill’s ex-wife seeking to allow the child’s step-father to adopt him. The statute under which the TPR was made included this language:

” … an adopted child is no longer an heir at law of a parent whose rights have been terminated under this chapter … “

The chancellor rejected Alexander’s argument, ruling that Mississippi law governed, and that our law provides that TPR does not preclude his ststus as wrongful death beneficiary. The trial court relied on the case of Estate of Jones v. Howell, 687 So.2d 1171 (Miss. 1996). Alexander appealed.

The MSSC affirmed in Alexander v. DeForest, decided January 31, 2019. Citing Howell, Justice Coleman’s opinion upheld the chancellor’s ruling:

¶14. In Howell, the Court was faced with a similar scenario wherein Warren County Chancery Court held that the decedent’s natural son, who had been adopted by another man, was a wrongful death beneficiary. Howell, 687 So. 2d at 1173. The Court explained that it had

previously addressed the issues now before this Court in Alack v. Phelps, 230 So. 2d 789, 793 (Miss. 1970), and Warren v. Foster, 450 So. 2d 786 (Miss. 1984). In [both cases], this Court held that an adopted child could inherit from his natural parent or parents. Moreover, in Alack, this Court held than an adopted child could bring a wrongful death action for his natural father’s death.

Id. The decedent’s natural son, Samuel Howell, had been adopted by the natural mother’s new husband; the adoption had occurred in Louisiana. Id. at 1174. The Court summarized the appellant’s arguments as follows:

The Estate argues that when we read [Mississippi Code Annotated Section] 11–7–13 (Mississippi’s wrongful death statute) in pari materia with[Mississippi Code Annotated Section] 93–17–13 (Mississippi’s adoption decree statute), we must conclude that the legislature intended that Samuel Howell Clinton’s rights to bring a wrongful death action for his natural father’s death be terminated at the time of adoption. Further, the Estate argues that this Court is obligated under the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Article I, Section 4, of the United States Constitution to apply Louisiana’s adoption law to the case sub judice. Specifically, the Estate argues that because Samuel Clinton Howell was adopted in Louisiana, we must look to Louisiana law to determine whether or not an adopted child can inherit from his natural parent. Under Louisiana decisional law, the Estate contends, a child who has been given up for adoption cannot inherit from his natural parent or parents. See Simmons v. Brooks, 342 So. 2d 236 (La. App. 4th Cir. 1977).

Id. The Court then thoroughly addressed the issue and argument presented. Relevant to the instant case is the following:

When dealing with the issue of adopted children bringing wrongful death actions for the death(s) of their natural parent(s), this Court has looked to Mississippi case law which holds that an adopted child can inherit from his natural parent(s). See, e.g., Sledge v. Floyd, 139 Miss. 398, 104 So. 163 (1925). This Court, by analogy, has cited our law allowing adopted children to inherit from their natural parents and applied the inheritance rule to wrongful death situations and, thus, allowed an adopted child to bring a wrongful death action for the death of his or her natural parent. See, e.g., Alack. We also note that none of the statutes in question, i.e., Section 11–7–13 or Section 93–17–13, specifically prohibits an adopted child from bringing a wrongful death action for his natural parent’s death. In fact, Section 93–17–13 only goes so far as to take away the natural parent’s and sibling’s right to inherit from, and bring a wrongful death action for the death of, a child given up for adoption. McLemore [v. Gammon], 468 So. 2d [84, 84] (Miss. 1985). Section 93–17–13 does not expressly take away the adopted child’s rights to inherit from the natural parent or to bring a wrongful death action for the natural parent’s death.

Moreover, Section 11–7–13 does not distinguish between the types of children entitled to bring a wrongful death action for the death of a parent, i.e., natural or adoptive. The statute provides that the suit may be brought “in the name of a child for the death of a parent.” Miss. Code Ann. § 11–7–13 (1972). While Samuel Clinton Howell was not Jones’ legal child, he certainly was his biological and natural child. Mississippi’s wrongful death statute allows an illegitimate child to bring a wrongful death action for the death of his parent provided the child complies with Section 91–1–15 of the Mississippi Code of 1972. It would be illogical to conclude that the legislature would allow an
illegitimate child, who might have never had any interaction at all with his parent or have ever been recognized by the parent, to bring an action for that parent’s wrongful death, and yet conclude that the legislature would then prohibit a child who had lived with the natural parent and was later given up for adoption from bringing a wrongful death action for the natural parent’s death.

The Estate also argues that the Louisiana adoption of Samuel Clinton Howell took the form of a termination of parental rights as to Jones. The Estate offers Miss. Code Ann. § 93–15–109 for the proposition that the chancery court can terminate an adopted child’s right to inherit from his or her natural parents. The Estate’s reliance upon Section 93–15–109 is misplaced because the cited statute, although not factually applicable in this case, does not specifically divest an adopted child of his right to bring a wrongful death action for a natural parent’s death.

Id. at 1176-77. The Court has squarely addressed a nearly identical issue, and in that case held that the natural son was a wrongful death beneficiary, despite the fact that the state where the adoption and termination of parental rights occurred prohibited him being considered a wrongful death beneficiary.

 

Process to Determine Wrongful Death Beneficiaries

March 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

When you file an action to determine wrongful-death beneficiaries, which type of process is proper: MRCP 4 or 81?

Matthew DeForest filed a Petition for Determination of Heirs-at-Law and Wrongful Death Beneficiaries after his father died in a trucking accident. Joe Alexander, the father’s brother, filed a contest asserting several defenses, among them that the court did not have personal jurisdiction over him because the proper process was not used. The chancellor ruled for DeForest, finding that “Matthew Bryan DeForest is the sole and only heir-at-law of the decedent for the purposes of the wrongful death action.” Alexander appealed.

In Alexander v. DeForest, decided January 31, 2019, the MSSC affirmed. Justice Coleman wrote for the unanimous court (Waller not participating):

¶7. In his first issue, Alexander argues that DeForest’s petition should have been dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(4) for lack of personal jurisdiction because process was insufficient. According to Alexander, he should have been served process consistent with Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 81(d)(1) as opposed to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 4(b).

¶8. Alexander argues that the chancery court’s judgment is void because it never had personal jurisdiction over him due to DeForest’s failure to serve him with a Rule 81 summons. Alexander explains that “An action to determine heirship is governed by Rule 81(d)(1) for which a summons substantially conforming with Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure Form 1(D) should issue to known and unknown respondents.”

¶9. DeForest caused Alexander to be personally served with a summons via certified mail. The summons stated that a response must be mailed or delivered within thirty days from the date of the delivery. However, the record also contains another summons. The second summons is a summons by publication addressed to “The Unknown Wrongful Death Heirs, Executors, Administrators, Devisees, Legatees, or Statutory Beneficiaries . . . of Jeff Underhill, Deceased, and Any and All Persons Claiming to be a Wrongful Death Beneficiary of Jeff Underhill, Deceased.” The body of the summons contained the following statement:

“The only other respondents other than you in this action are Jeanne Elizabeth Tyler, Joe Alexander, Sam Underhill, Tyler Alexander, and Luke Underhill.” Additionally, the summons required anyone claiming to be a wrongful death beneficiary “to appear and defend against the Petition filed by Matthew Bryan DeForest against you in this action 9:30 A.M. on the 21st day of October, 2016, . . . .” DeForest’s position is that, cumulatively, the personal summons and summons by publication gave Alexander sufficient notice as required by law.

¶10. We hold that in the instant case, the Rule 4 summons was sufficient, as the instant matter to determine wrongful death beneficiaries is not one of a determination of heirship as contemplated by Rule 81. In Long v. McKinney, 897 So. 2d 160, 175-76 (¶ 67) (Miss. 2004), we explained,

“Although there is no specific mandated procedure for the identification of wrongful death beneficiaries, a chancery court may make such determinations; those persons bringing the wrongful death action, together with their counsel, have a duty to identify the beneficiaries, and they should do so early in the proceedings.” Further, the Court has explained on several occasions that a “wrongful death action is not part of the estate of the deceased, and only those individuals listed in the wrongful death statute may bring this independent cause of action.” Pannell v. Guess, 671 So. 2d 1310, 1313 (Miss. 1996) (citing Partyka v. Yazoo Dev. Corp., 376 So. 2d 646, 650 (Miss. 1979)).

¶11. Though there is much terminology overlap and mirroring of language between a determination of heirs for the purpose of an estate and a determination of wrongful death beneficiaries, the only possible issue before the chancery court at the time was a determination of wrongful death beneficiaries, which is a different animal than a determination of heirship as governed by Mississippi Code Section 91-1-29. A determination of wrongful death beneficiaries does not require a Rule 81 summons; therefore, the Rule 4 summons DeForest caused to be served on Alexander was sufficient for the chancery court to obtain jurisdiction.

My thoughts:

  • Plenty of lawyers do not appreciate the difference between an action to determine heirs in an estate and an action to determine wrongful death beneficiaries that is outside an estate. The former is a R81(d)(1) matter, and the latter is a R4 matter. I have had to send lawyers back to the drafting table time after time because they mix up the two. And although there is some overlap between the laws of heirship and the law of wrongful-death beneficiaries, the two are actually different.
  • Before you go diving off into a chancery action to determine wrongful-death beneficiaries, the following is required reading: MCA §§ 91-1-1 and 3 (descent and distribution); MCA § 11-7-13 (wrongful death actions); UCCR 6.10 (petitions in chancery to compromise settlements); and Long v. McKinney, cited above. Only after you grasp all of that in combination should you file your petition.
  • In this case, DeForest made his job more difficult by casting his pleading as one to determine heirs and wrongful-death beneficiaries. It not only opened him to the defense of bad process, but probably caused some consternation to the chancellor who nonetheless plowed ahead and found DeForest to be “the sole and only heir-at-law of the decedent for purposes of the wrongful death action,” a correct, if confusedly worded,  conclusion no doubt dictated by DeForest’s confusing prayer for relief. DeForest should have filed two different pleadings, one for determination of heirship and one for determination of Wrongful death beneficiaries, with two different processes.

Alexander also argued that DeForest’s claim to be sole wrongful-death beneficiary was defeated by the fact that his father’s parental rights had been terminated by judgment of a Michigan court. We’ll explore that intriguing proposition in a later post.

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