Court rejects challenge to state law on inheritance by illegitimate children


LITTLE ROCK — The state Supreme Court on Thursday rejected a woman’s argument that her constitutional rights were violated when special requirements were imposed on her in an estate case because her parents were not married to each other when she was born.

Carmella Bell had filed a petition to inherit from the estate of Carl McDonald, claiming that although at the time she was born her mother, Regina Wingard, was married to Carl McDonald’s brother, Paul McDonald, she was conceived while Wingard was still married to Carl McDonald and was Carl McDonald’s biological daughter — and therefore his heir.

Bell asked for scientific testing to determine paternity.

A circuit judge dismissed the petition, ruling that Bell had not met the requirements that apply to an illegitimate child who pursues an inheritance claim.

Arkansas Code Annotated 28-9-209(d) states that an illegitimate child may inherit real or personal property “provided that at least one of the following conditions is satisfied and an action is commenced or claim asserted against the estate of the father in a court of competent jurisdiction within 180 days of the death of the father.”

The conditions are:

—A court has established paternity.

—The man has made a written acknowledgement that he is the father of the child.

—The man’s name appears with his written consent on the child’s birth certificate.

—The mother and father married before the child’s birth.

—The mother and father attempted to marry before the child’s birth, though the marriage may have been declared invalid.

—The man is obligated to support the child under a written voluntary promise or court order.

Bell argued that to place a heavier burden on an illegitimate child than on a legitimate child violates the due-process and equal-protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution. She also argued that for her to satisfy one of the six conditions in the law, she would have to establish paternity in court within 180 days, yet a litigant has little control over the time it would take to complete such an action.

In a 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the circuit judge’s ruling.

The majority cited a previous Supreme Court ruling stating that “the Supreme Court has recognized that a statutory differentiation based solely on illegitimacy can be justified by a state’s interests in preventing spurious claims against intestate estates, and in the maintenance of a prompt and accurate method of distributing an intestate’s property.”

The majority also said that because Bell previously was presumed to be the biological daughter of Carl McDonald’s brother, she was not entitled to assert her claim.

“Appellant is not even authorized to file a paternity action on her own behalf … because she is a person for whom paternity is presumed,” Justice Cliff Hoofman wrote in the majority opinion.

Justices Karen Baker and Josephine Hart dissented. Writing for the minority, Hart said the circuit judge and the majority of the high court were mistakenly reading the statute to mean that both a claim must be asserted and one of the listed conditions must be met within 180 days.

“Not only does the majority’s interpretation violate the rules of grammar regarding independent clauses, it also defies logic and the rules of statutory construction,” Hart wrote in the minority opinion.

Hart also wrote that Arkansas Code Annotated 28-9-209(a)(2) states that “a child born or conceived during a marriage is presumed to be the legitimate child of both spouses for the same purposes.”

“Accordingly, Ms. Bell was not an illegitimate child,” Hart wrote.