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Darling v. Estate of John

February 06, 1998

LAUREN NICOLE DARLING, BY AND THROUGH, APPELLANTS HER MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND DINA DARLING
v.
IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN, APPELLEES ELMER KEENUM, III, DECEASED AND IN THE MATTER OF THE ESTATE OF JULIE ANN KEENUM, DECEASED



DATE OF JUDGMENT: 12/08/95 TRIAL JUDGE: HON. PERCY LEE LYNCHARD JR. COURT FROM WHICH APPEALED: DESOTO COUNTY CHANCERY COURT

NATURE OF THE CASE: CIVIL - WILLS, TRUSTS AND ESTATES TRIAL COURT DISPOSITION: CHANCELLOR GRANTED ESTATES' MOTION TO DISMISS LAUREN DARLING'S CLAIM TO BE AN HEIR OF JOHN E. KEENUM, III. DISPOSITION AFFIRMED - 1/27/98 MOTION FOR REHEARING FILED: CERTIORARI FILED: MANDATE ISSUED:

Before Thomas, P.j., Herring, And Hinkebein, JJ.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hinkebein, J., For The Court:

Lauren Nicole Darling [hereinafter Darling] appeals an order of the Desoto County Chancery Court dismissing her claim to be recognized as an heir of John Elmer Keenum, III and therefore entitled to a portion of his and his sister's estates. The chancery court held that Darling's claim was barred because she failed to file a paternity action within the time limitations specified by Mississippi law. Aggrieved by the chancery court's ruling, Darling asserts the following assignments of error:

I. MISSISSIPPI CODE ANNOTATED SECTION 91-1-15 (AS AMENDED) IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL IN THAT IT DENIES A MINOR ILLEGITIMATE CHILD FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF DUE PROCESS.

II. MISSISSIPPI CODE ANNOTATED SECTION 91-1-15 (AS AMENDED) IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL IN THAT IT DENIES A MINOR ILLEGITIMATE CHILD EQUAL PROTECTION UNDER THE LAW.

FACTS

In September of 1991 John Elmer Keenum, III and his twin sister Julie Ann Keenum [hereinafter estates] were murdered. The murders were allegedly perpetrated by their father, who subsequently committed suicide. The estates were intestate. Letters of administration were issued in February of 1992 wherein David Clay Vanderburg [hereinafter Vanderburg] was appointed administrator of the estates. In addition to seeking a distribution of the estates' assets, the heirs also brought wrongful death actions against the estate of the alleged murderer. By the ninth of September 1992, Vandenberg had completed the process of publishing notice to creditors of the estates. Approximately one year later, on November 2, 1993, an attorney for Darling wrote a letter to one of the estates' attorneys in which he asserted that Darling was the illegitimate daughter of John E. Keenum, III and thereby entitled to a portion of the estates and also a portion of any wrongful death recovery that might be obtained. A copy of this letter was forwarded to Vanderburg. Darling took no further legal action on her claim until after the estates filed petitions for determination of heirs, nearly two years later.

In September of 1995 Vanderburg filed petitions for determination of heirs of the estates. In these petitions Vanderburg joined Darling "as a possible heir of the decedent in this proceeding." Darling answered both petitions on November 20, 1995. In her answers Darling asserted that any defense to her claim to be an heir of the estates "by way of statute of limitations is null and void in that said statute is unconstitutional and denies the illegitimate child, Nicole Darling, due process and equal protection under the laws of the United States and the State of Mississippi." On that same day the estates filed motions to strike and dismiss Darling's answers. The estates asserted that Darling, as an illegitimate child, had failed to prosecute a paternity action within the time required by Mississippi statute and that contrary to Darling's claim, such statute was not a violation of either the constitutions of Mississippi or the United States. The estates' position was that Darling was not an heir and therefore not entitled to any portion of the estates or any wrongful death recovery that might be obtained. The chancery court granted the estates' motions, holding that "pursuant to the appropriate statutes as aforestated, the claim of the minor child in this cause, Lauren Nicole Darling, is effectively barred as not [having been timely filed]." The chancery court rejected Darling's argument that Section 91-1-15 (3) (c) of the Mississippi Code was an unconstitutional violation of her rights to due process and equal protection under the constitutions of Mississippi and the United States. It is from this decision of the chancery court that the instant appeal is taken.

ANALYSIS

I. MISSISSIPPI CODE ANNOTATED SECTION 91-1-15 (AS AMENDED) IS UNCONSTITUTIONAL IN THAT IT DENIES A MINOR ILLEGITIMATE CHILD FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS OF DUE PROCESS.

For an illegitimate child to inherit from a deceased parent via intestate succession or under Mississippi's wrongful death statute, the illegitimate must prove his relation to the decedent under one of the avenues provided by Section 91-1-15 of the Mississippi Code. The portion of Section 91-1-15 pertinent to the facts at bar provides that: n illegitimate shall inherit from and through the illegitimate's natural father and his kindred . . . according to the statutes of descent and distribution if . . . here has been an adjudication of paternity after the death of the intestate, based upon clear and convincing evidence, in an heirship proceeding under sections 91-1-27 and 91-1-29. However, no such claim of inheritance shall be recognized unless the action seeking an adjudication of paternity is filed within one (1) year after the death of the intestate or within ninety (90) days after the first publication of notice to creditors to present their claims, whichever is less; and such time period shall run notwithstanding the minority of a child.

Miss. Code Ann. § 91-1-15 (3) (c) (Rev. 1994). Under the facts at bar it is undisputed that an action pursuant to Section 91-1-15 (3) (c) was the only avenue available for Darling to prove that she was the illegitimate daughter of John Elmer Keenum, III and, therefore, entitled to a portion of his and his sister's estates. It is also undisputed that Darling never instituted a paternity action, either before or after the expiration of the time limits prescribed by Section 91-1-15 (3) (c). Furthermore, there is no evidence giving any indication that Vanderburg, the attorney appointed by the chancery court to administerer the estate, knew or should have known of the existence of Darling prior to the letter of November 2, 1993. At the time Vandenberg learned of Darling's existence and her claim to be an heir the deadlines under Section 91-1- 15 (3) (c) for establishing paternity had expired many months earlier.

Darling's sole argument before the trial court and on this appeal is that Section 91-1-15 (3) (c) is unconstitutional because the time limits it imposes worked to deny her due process and equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by the constitutions of Mississippi and the United States. With this assignment of error Darling addresses the due process component of her argument. Although Darling's argument is quite vague, apparently she is contending that she was entitled to actual notice of all ...


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