Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Parent With No Legal Duty To Support Deceased Child Does Not Forfeit Share of Intestate Estate

Estate of Small v. Small, a July 21, 2020 opinion from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, involved the alleged forfeiture of a parent’s share in his child’s estate where his child died without a will.  The question was whether an adult decedent, who became disabled after reaching the age of majority, was a dependent child for purposes of the Pennsylvania Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code’s forfeiture statute.

Decedent was 18 when he was shot and became a paraplegic.  Decedent died at 37, with no spouse and no children.  Decedent’s mother was granted letters of administration.  The sole asset of decedent’s estate was a $90,000 wrongful-death award.

Decedent’s mother filed a forfeiture petition under section 2106(b), asserting that decedent’s father forfeited his share of the estate by failing to perform his duty of support.

At the hearing on the mother’s forfeiture petition, the central issue was whether decedent was a “dependent child” under section 2106(b) of Pennsylvania’s Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code.  Evidence was presented that decedent could perform all of life’s ordinary activities, except walking.  Decedent’s home health aide and paramour testified that decedent was mostly self-sufficient.  Decedent’s mother testified that she helped decedent with his medications, but that with respect to more general daily activities, decedent did not need her help.

The Pennsylvania Orphan’s Court denied the mother’s petition for forfeiture of the father’s share of the estate.  The orphan’s court explained that decedent was not a dependent child under section 2106(b), relying on the fact that Decedent was never adjudicated incapacitated, declared incompetent, or appointed a guardian, and that no evidence of mental impairment had been presented at the hearing.

Decedent’s mother appealed, urging that the orphans’ court impermissibly narrowed the scope of the phrase “dependent child.” The Superior Court affirmed.  The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted further review.

When Do Parents Of A Decedent Inherit Under Pennsylvania Law?

When a decedent dies intestate, Pennsylvania’s Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code governs the manner in which a decedent’s estate is to be distributed, which we have written about here.

Generally, when an intestate decedent dies without a spouse or children, but with living parents, the decedent’s parents are entitled to inherit the decedent’s estate.  Section 2106(b) provides an exception to this rule and states:

Any parent who, for one year or upwards previous to the death of the parent’s minor or dependent child, has:

(1) failed to perform the duty to support the minor or dependent child or who, for one year, has deserted the minor or dependent child; or

(2) been convicted of one of the following offenses under Title 18….

shall have no right or interest under this chapter in the real or personal estate of the minor or dependent child. The determination under paragraph (1) shall be made by the court after considering the quality, nature and extent of the parent’s contact with the child and the physical, emotional and financial support provided to the child.

What Is A Forfeiture Petition in Pennsylvania Orphan’s Court?

A forfeiture petition is a petition filed in Pennsylvania orphan’s court asking that the manner in which a decedent’s intestate estate is distributed be altered and that an heir’s share be forfeited.

In this case the basis of the forfeiture petition was the alleged failure of a parent to care for a dependent child.

Other instances where a forfeiture petition with respect to a parent’s share might be appropriate include where a parent has concealed the death of a child, endangered the welfare of a child, or sexually abused a child.

A spouse’s share can be forfeited for a failure to support or for desertion of the deceased spouse.  A beneficiary that participates in the willful and unlawful killing of the decedent also forfeits the right to inherit from the decedent.

What Is The Burden of Proof In A Petition For Forfeiture Of A Parent’s Share of Decedent’s Estate?

The petitioner seeking forfeiture of a parent’s share of an estate for failure to perform the duty to support a dependent child under Pennsylvania law has the burden to demonstrate three elements:

  1. Decedent was a dependent child;
  2. Parent (in this case the father) had “the duty to support” Decedent; and,
  3. Parent failed to perform that duty for at least one year prior to Decedent’s death.

When Is A Decedent A “Dependent Child” Under Pennsylvania’s Forfeiture Statute?

The Pennsylvania Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code does not define the term “dependent child.”

In this case the decedent’s mother contended that for the purpose of the Pennsylvania forfeiture statute regarding a parent’s share of the estate the term “dependent child” should broadly refer to any child who is incapable of fully caring for himself, and thus – at least informally speaking – depends on others for support.  The mother argued that the term “dependent child” is not meant to include only those individuals who have been declared incapacitated or have some type of mental deficiency.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court looked to the plain language of section 2106, stating:

By its terms — and consistent with the above recitation of the three-factor test for relief on a forfeiture petition — Section 2106(b) requires any dependency on the child’s part to be one that gives rise to a duty of support on the part of a parent. This is evident from paragraph (b)(1)’s reference to “the duty to support the . . . dependent child[.]” 20 Pa.C.S. §2106(b)(1). Here, the phrase “the duty” leaves no room for an interpretation whereby the child was dependent, in some sense of the word, but there was no corresponding duty on the part of the parent to provide support. A child cannot have been “dependent” under Section 2106(b), then, unless the subject parent had a duty to support the child. As a consequence, it is helpful to inquire as to the type of duty involved.

What Is The Parental Duty Of Support Under Pennsylvania’s Forfeiture Statute?

As used in the forfeiture provision section 2106(b) of the Pennsylvania Probate, Estates and Fiduciaries Code, the concepts of a dependent child and the parental duty of support contemplate a legally-imposed parental duty stemming from a state dependency arising under the established law of Pennsylvania.

The “duty to support” as used in the statute is not a social, moral, or ethical duty arising apart from the law in relation to an adult child who, in some sense, dependent on others for assistance with ordinary activities.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court stated:

We find it doubtful that the General Assembly’s use of the definitive phrase, “the duty to support” (emphasis added), was intended to refer to such an imprecise concept. There would be little in the way of objectively discernible standards which orphans’ courts could apply in determining whether such a social/moral duty existed. The number and types of factual circumstances that could go into such a generalized evaluation may be virtually limitless. Although we do not presently discount that the General Assembly may, in setting social policy, choose to predicate forfeiture upon such an uncertain foundation, to accomplish this it would have to use words which more expressly embody that directive.

 

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As for the particular guidance given to orphans’ courts in the final portion of Section 2106(b) — that the court is to consider the “quality, nature and extent of the parent’s contact with the child and the physical, emotional and financial support provided to the child” — this pertains only to whether the parent performed any duty that he had, and not whether such a duty existed in the first place.

Therefore, here, the mother failed to demonstrate that the decedent was a dependent child – and concomitantly, that the father had a duty of care – as required to obtain relief under Pennsylvania’s forfeiture statute addressing a parent’s share of a decedent’s estate.

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