Probate, trust, guardianship and inheritance litigation
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West Virginia Prevents Child From Inheriting From Deceased Parent Where Parental Rights Terminated

What happens in West Virginia to an inheritance from a parent to a child when the parent has had his parental rights terminated? The recent West Virginia Supreme Court case of Hall v. Hall, 241 W. Va. 12, 818 S.E.2d 838 (2018), holds that under West Virginia law a child may not inherit from a deceased parent when parental rights have been terminated.

In this case, because of alleged abuse, the father of the child voluntarily relinquished his parental rights over his biological child. The father died while in prison, intestate, about three years later.

Can a Child Inherit From a Parent If Parental Rights Have Been Terminated?

West Virginia’s intestate succession statute, § 42-1-3a, provides that where there is no surviving spouse, the decedent’s estate shall pass to his or her descendants by representation.

Section 42-1-1(5) defines “descendant” to mean descendants of “all generations with the relationship of parent and child at each generation being determined by the definition of a child and parent contained in this code.”

The Court reasoned that the phrase “relationship of parent and child” required the child to show satisfaction of both “parent” and “child” somewhere in West Virginia law in order to inherit:

While the absence of a clear definition of the term “child” is troublesome, W. Va. Code § 42-1-1(5) specifies that, for the purpose of identifying descendants, “the relationship of parent and child” is “determined by the definition of child and parent contained in this code.” (Emphasis added). Use of the conjunctive “and” in this provision directs that consideration be given to the definition of both “child” and “parent” in determining the relationship of parent and child. See Ooten v. Faerber, 181 W. Va. 592, 597, 383 S.E.2d 774, 779 (1989) (observing that “the use of ‘and’ . . . clearly makes both conditions necessary, not merely either of the two. . . . ‘And’ is a conjunction connecting words or phrases, expressing the idea that the latter is to be added to or taken along with the first.”). Because both definitions must be met, we next consider the term “parent.” If a parent whose parental rights have been terminated does not come within the definition of “parent” as set out in the descent and distribution statutes, then this issue may be resolved even in the absence of a clear definition of the term child.

The Court found no applicable definition of “child” in West Virginia law. The Court relied on the definition of “parent” in Section 42-1-1(26), which is defined as one who would inherit from a child if the child died without a will.

Because the father was not the child’s “parent” because his parental rights had been terminated, he did not qualify as a “parent” under West Virginia succession law and would not inherit from the child.

Termination of parental rights terminates all rights of the parent. In re Cesar L., 221 W. Va. 249, 654 S.E.2d 373 (“A final order terminating a person’s parental rights . . . completely severs the parent-child relationship, and, as a consequence of such order of termination, the law no longer recognizes such person as a ‘parent’ with regard to the child(ren) involved in the particular termination proceeding.”). See also W. Va. Code § 49-4-604(b)(6) (formerly W. Va. Code § 49-6-5(a)(6)) (authorizing circuit court to terminate “parental, custodial and guardianship rights and responsibilities” of an abusing parent upon making required findings); Elmer Jimmy S. v. Kenneth B., 199 W. Va. 263, 268, 483 S.E.2d 846, 851 (1997) (“When an individual’s parental rights have been terminated the law no longer recognizes such individual as a ‘parent’ with regard to the child or children involved in the particular termination proceeding.”). Because, the relationship of a terminated parent with his or her child is utterly severed by virtue of W. Va. Code § 49-4-604(b)(6), a parent whose parental rights have been terminated would not be entitled to take from the subject child and, therefore, does not meet the definition of “parent” set out in W. Va. Code § 42-1-1(26).

Accordingly, the Court held that the child had not shown “a relationship of parent and child” as required by the intestate succession statute. The Court concluded that the child was not a “descendant” entitled to inherit from the father’s estate under West Virginia Code § 42-1-3a, because parental rights had been terminated.

Dissent Says Child Should Inherit

A blistering dissent explains why the majority opinion may be incorrect:

The majority’s convoluted path to the contrary conclusion fails to respect the most basic of all canons of statutory interpretation: statutes mean what they plainly say.  In its tortured analysis, the majority reasons that the impediments to [the child’s] inheritance are the statutory definitions of “descendant,” West Virginia Code § 42-1-1(5) (2014), and “parent,” Id. § 42-1-1(26). Essentially, the majority reasons that after his parental rights were terminated, Mr. Hall would not meet the definition of “parent” for purposes of the descent and distribution statutes. The majority then abruptly leaps to the unsupported conclusion that their parent-child relationship was “utterly severed” to such a degree that [the child] no longer remained Mr. Hall’s “descendant.”

The majority is half right: the decedent, Mr. Hall, would not meet the definition of “parent” for purposes of the descent and distribution statutes. All this means, however, is that he would not be entitled to inherit from [the child] if she predeceased him. However, that hypothetical question is not before us. Although our statutes do not specifically address that issue, I agree with the majority that Mr. Hall lost those rights after he voluntarily relinquished all his parental rights as a result of his abuse of this child.

Nevertheless, it makes little sense to construe West Virginia Code § 42-1-3a as creating a per se statutory barrier to the reverse—[the child’s] ability to inherit from Mr. Hall. The central flaw in the majority’s reasoning is that it assumes the rights flowing from the parent-child relationship are reciprocal here when under the instant circumstances, they are not.

The dissent also explained that West Virginia’s law in this regard were modeled after the Uniform Probate Code.  The Uniform Probate Code provides:

(a) A parent is barred from inheriting from or through a child of the parent if:
(1) the parent’s parental rights were terminated and the parent-child relationship was not judicially reestablished; or
(2) the child died before reaching [18] years of age and there is clear and convincing evidence that immediately before the child’s death the parental rights of the parent could have been terminated under law of this state other than this [code] on the basis of nonsupport, abandonment, abuse, neglect, or other actions or inactions of the parent toward the child.
(b) For the purpose of intestate succession from or through the deceased child, a parent who is barred from inheriting under this section is treated as if the parent predeceased the child.

Notably, the UPC does bar a child from inheriting from a deceased parent when parental rights have been terminated.

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