Is it fair for a parent to take an intestate share of a deceased child’s estate when that parent abandoned the child? The New York legislature says no. Pursuant to EPTL 4-1.4(a)(1), a parent is disqualified from taking an intestate share of a child’s estate on the ground of abandonment or nonsupport.
Originally, EPTL 4-1.4(a) provided that a parent who failed to provide for or abandoned the child while the child was under twenty-one years old, should be disqualified from receiving his/her distributive share in the deceased child’s estate unless the parental relationship and duties were resumed and continued until the death of the child. However, the statute has changed over the past twenty-five years.
The evolution of EPTL 4-1.4(a)(1) began when the statute was amended in 1993 to allow a biological parent to share in the estate where the parent could show that the parent had placed the child up for adoption, but that the adoption failed due to a fraud or deceit.
The provision was based on the infamous circumstances surrounding the case of Michele Launders, who hired attorney Joel Steinberg to arrange for the adoption of her unborn child, later named Lisa. Instead of arranging for a legal adoption, Steinberg kept the child for himself and his live-in companion, Hedda Nussbaum. Lisa suffered horrendous abuse and died as a result. After her death, her biological mother, Michele, attempted to pursue a wrongful death claim. But because Michele had abandoned Lisa, and Lisa had never been legal adopted by anyone else, there was no one with standing to bring the wrongful death suit. The 1993 amendment was intended to correct a perceived legislative injustice where the failure to support arose due to the act or omission of a third party, rather than the parent. After the amendment was adopted, Michele was permitted to proceed with the wrongful death suit.
In 2006, the statue was repealed and reenacted in an amended form. Additional grounds for disqualification were added. In instances where by an order a parent’s parental rights were terminated or suspended, the parent will be disqualified. The parent will also be disqualified if, in such a termination proceeding, (i) the Family Court suspended his or her parental rights pursuant to a suspended judgment; and (ii) the Surrogate’s Court subsequently finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the parent failed to comply with the Family Court order during the suspension period. The provision is intended to prevent an abusive parent from sharing in the intestate share of a child.
Although the legislature has not defined “abandonment” in the statute, courts apply common-law principles in determining what constitutes abandonment in cases involving EPTL. Courts have consistently held that abandonment includes the “voluntary failure of duty to care for and train a child and a failure to supervise and guide the child’s growth and development” (Matter of Wigfall, 20 Misc 3d 648 ).
In a case where an adult daughter died tragically on September 11, 2011 in the World Trade Center attacks, the decedent’s siblings petitioned the court to disqualify their father from taking a distributive share in her estate on the grounds that their father had abandoned her (In re Estate of Gonzalez, 196 Misc 2d 984 [Sur Ct, Bronx County August 26, 2003]).
The decedent’s parents were never married and were unable to maintain a home for their three children. As a consequence, the two daughters were cared for by their maternal grandmother and great grandmother, and the son was taken in to foster care. The decedent’s mother pre-deceased her and the father relocated from New York to Florida when the decedent was seven years old.
The father provided no support for the children. He testified that he visited with the decedent occasionally when he visited New York or when she visited Florida, but he was unable to remember how many times they visited. He also testified that he had phone conversations with the decedent twice each year, yet she was the one who made the calls to him. The father was not even aware that the decedent worked in the World Trade Center until after her death.
In this case, the court framed the question of abandonment as whether the “father evinced an intent to forego his parental rights as manifested by his failure to visit with the decedent or to communicate with her when she was a child, although clearly able to do so.” The court held that insubstantial, infrequent visits or communications by the father with the child would not preclude a finding of abandonment, and that the father’s alleged long-distance love did not constitute the “natural and legal obligations of training, care and guidance owed by a parent to a child.” As a result, the court ruled that the father was not entitled to a distributive share of the decedent’s estate or to share in any wrongful death recovery on the grounds that he abandoned her.
However, in another case involving the World Trade Center attacks, a father was entitled to receive Workers’ Compensation death benefits even though, under EPTL 4-1.4, he had been disqualified as a distributee of the decedent’s estate based on abandonment (Crisman v Marsh & McLennan Cos., 6 AD 3d 899 [3d Dept 2004]).
Under Workers’ Compensation Law §16(4-b), surviving parents are entitled to a $50,000 death benefit. The administrator of the decedent’s estate successfully moved in Surrogate’s Court to disqualify the father as a distribute of decedent’s estate pursuant to EPTL 4-1.4 on the grounds of abandonment. Armed with a favorable decision from Surrogate’s Court, the decedent’s mother sought a review by the Workers’ Compensation Board to disqualify the decedent’s father from receiving half of the Workers’ Compensation death benefit based upon his abandonment of the decedent when the decedent was an infant. Nevertheless, the Board denied the mother’s request and directed $25,000 in death benefits to be paid to each parent.
Upon appeal to the Appellate Division, the Court held that the Workers’ Compensation statute provides that where an employee is not survived by a spouse, child or certain other disabled or dependent individuals, the employee’s death benefit shall be paid to the deceased’s surviving parents. The Court held that absent any qualifying or limiting language, the Workers’ Compensation Board did not have authority to carve out an exception and exclude a parent who abandons his child. The plain terms of the Workers’ Compensation Law unequivocally provide for payment of a death benefit to the decedent’s surviving parents.
Similarly, a father who abandoned his son was also entitled to life insurance proceeds (Estate of Benjamin Joseph Bortzfield, 2006 NY Misc LEXIS 9769 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County January 5, 2006]). In this case, the decedent died intestate and was survived by his parents. The decedent’s life was insured through his employer, but he failed to designate a beneficiary for the policy. The policy provided that where no beneficiary is designated, the benefits would be paid in equal shares to the surviving (1) spouse; (2) children; (3) parents; or (4) brothers and sisters. The decedent was unmarried and had no children, therefore his parents were the beneficiaries of the policy.
The insurance company commenced an action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York to resolve the conflicting claims by the parents. The parties entered into a settlement agreement which provided that the mother would receive one-half of the policy amount and the other half would be held in a separate account until the Surrogate’s Court action concluded.
The decedent’s mother sought to have the father disqualified under EPTL 4-1.4 on the grounds that the father had abandoned their son. The policy did not define or qualify the term “parents,” so the Surrogate’s Court construed the term using its “usual and commonly understood meaning.” As such, the Court held that even a father who abandoned his child was still a parent. The Court ruled in favor of the father and awarded him his share in the life insurance proceeds.
The bottom line here is that, although a parent can be disqualified from inheriting a deceased child’s estate on the grounds of abandonment, he/she may still inherit Workers’ Compensation death benefits and life insurance proceeds. These decisions turn on highly fact specific analysis and often detailed factual evidence submitted by both sides. Because of this, practitioners and parties are well advised to prepare for an adversarial evidentiary hearing at the outset.
Contributed by Jacque K. Vincent