In the February 2020 case of Robinson v. Estate of Robinson, the Florida appellate court delivered cold justice when it held that equity is not a basis to ignore the statute of limitations and legal precedent in a probate paternity action.
John Robinson died intestate in February 2004. A woman named Sylvia Michel claimed to be John’s daughter and heir. Michel filed a petition for summary administration of his estate and to determine homestead status. The court entered these orders, finding “that all interested persons have been served proper notice of the petition and hearing, or have waived notice thereof…”
Decedent’s brother Vernal Robinson, 5 months later, wrote to the court and asked that the estate be reopened. Robinson claimed lack of notice and disputed Michel’s claim that she was Decedent’s daughter.
The estate was reopened. Michel filed a verified petition for release of a blood sample of the decedent. Robinson objected and argued that Michel’s claim to establish paternity was barred by the statute of limitations. Initially Robinson’s motion was granted. However, on rehearing, a successor judge granted Michel’s petition and reasoned that: “if there is a DNA sample that could scientifically establish whether or not John Robinson is the father, it would be…an extreme injustice for this not to occur.” After all, probate court is a court of equity.
What Is The Statute Of Limitations for Paternity Actions In Florida Probate?
Section 732.108(2)(b) of the Florida Probate Code was amended in 2009 to provide that the four year statute of limitations under Chapter 95 does not apply to determining paternity in a probate proceeding relating to intestate succession.
Chapter 95 imposes a four-year statute of limitations to an action relating to the determination of paternity, with the time running from the date the child reaches the age of majority. Said another way, under Chapter 95, if you are attempting to establish paternity, it must be done prior to the child reaching age 22 (with the age of majority being 18). See Rose v. Sonson (Fla. 3d DCA 2016), which we have discussed here.
A key holding from Rose is that section 732.108 does not apply retroactively. Therefore, if a claim was extinguished before the implementation of the statute, the claim was barred.
Relying on this precedent, Robinson argued that Michel’s claim was extinguished in 2002 (four years after she reached majority) and that Michel could no longer pursue a paternity determination in probate.
Michel responded with an equity argument, claiming that children born out of wedlock have a right to inherit from their natural fathers if paternity is established. But does this right to inherit trump the statute of limitations applicable to Michel’s claim?
Is Equity a Basis to Ignore The Statute of Limitations?
No. Equity is not a basis to ignore the statute of limitations and the court’s precedent. In Rose, the court determined that:
the 2009 amendment to section 732.108(2)(b) did not affect this outcome because the Florida Legislature did not make the amendment retroactive in its application. Id. Finally, this court stated that even if the amendment were retroactive, it could not revive Rose’s claim because his claim had been extinguished by the applicable statute of limitations.
Michel reached the age of majority in 1998. She did not petition for summary adjudication until 2016, or for a DNA sample to verify paternity until 2017. By the time Michel filed her paternity claim, it had already been time barred by section 95.11(3)(b), because more than four years had passed since she attained the age of majority in 1998. Her right to establish paternity was extinguished in 2002, and was not revived by the 2009 amendment.
Michel’s appeal to equity and justice in the Florida probate paternity action failed. The court quoted the Florida Supreme Court:
[W]e cannot agree that courts of equity have any right or power under the law of Florida to issue such order it considers to be in the best interest of ‘social justice’ at the particular moment without regard to established law. This court has no authority to change the law simply because the law seems to us [*6] to be inadequate in some particular case.
Sometimes the results in Florida probate cases and paternity actions seem inequitable and unfair. However, the law has to draw a bright line rule to maintain consistency and order. Permitting litigants to successfully appeal to equity in Florida probate paternity cases where their claims are time barred would invite endless litigation.