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In re Determination of Wrongful Death Heirs of Underhill

Supreme Court of Mississippi

January 31, 2019

IN THE MATTER OF THE DETERMINATION OF WRONGFUL DEATH HEIRS OF JEFF UNDERHILL, DECEASED: JOE ALEXANDER
v.
MATTHEW BRYAN DeFOREST

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 11/04/2016

          GREENE COUNTY CHANCERY COURT, HON. D. NEIL HARRIS, SR. TRIAL JUDGE

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: KEN R. ADCOCK REGINALD PAUL HARRION

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: REGINALD PAUL HARRION

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: KEN R. ADCOCK WILLIAM C. IVISON

          BEFORE KITCHENS, P.J., KING AND COLEMAN, JJ.

          COLEMAN, JUSTICE

         ¶1. The instant appeal stems from Matthew Ryan DeForest's Petition for Determination of Heirs-At-Law and Wrongful Death Beneficiaries following the death of his natural father, Jeff Underhill. Joe Alexander, Underhill's brother, filed a responsive pleading to DeForest's petition raising numerous affirmative defenses; however, the Greene County Chancery Court held in favor of DeForest. The chancery court entered a judgment declaring DeForest to be sole heir at law for the purpose of the pending wrongful death action. We affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. On July 20, 1977, Matthew Ryan Underhill was born to parents Jeff and Jenny Lee Underhill; soon thereafter Jeff and Jenny Lee divorced. Then, on October 25, 1983, Underhill voluntarily terminated his parental rights to allow Jenny Lee's then-husband, Steven Wayne DeForest, to adopt six-year-old Matthew. As a result, Matthew became Matthew Ryan DeForest. At the time of DeForest's adoption, he was a Michigan resident, and the termination of parental rights and adoption occurred in Michigan courts.

         ¶3. On November 3, 2015, Underhill was involved in a trucking accident in Greene County, Mississippi; Underhill died as a result. At the time of his death Underhill was unmarried, and he was a resident of Florida. Underhill owned no property in Mississippi and had no other connection to Mississippi apart from the fact that the accident and death had occurred here. DeForest filed a wrongful death complaint in the Greene County Circuit Court, and he then filed the instant petition in the chancery court to determine Underhill's heirs at law and wrongful death beneficiaries. In his petition, DeForest named Jeanne Elizabeth Tyler, Underhill's mother; Joe Alexander, Underhill's brother; Sam Underhill, Underhill's brother; Tyler Alexander, Underhill's brother; Luke Underhill, Underhill's brother; and other unknown heirs and wrongful death beneficiaries of Underhill. Of the persons listed, only Joe Alexander responded.

         ¶4. Alexander raised several affirmative defenses in his response, titled Affirmative Defense of Joe Alexander to the Petition for Determination of Heirs-At-Law And Wrongful Death Beneficiaries; Alternatively, Answer. He argued that DeForest's petition should be dismissed pursuant to Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted; under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(4) for insufficient process and service of process; and under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) for lack of jurisdiction. He also claimed a lack of due process, a lack of standing, full faith and credit, and Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c).

         ¶5. After a hearing, the chancery court ruled in favor of DeForest and declared him to be Underhill's sole heir at law and wrongful death beneficiary. Alexander filed a motion for rehearing, which the chancery court denied following a hearing. Aggrieved, Alexander raises the following issues on appeal:

I. Whether the [trial c]ourt properly determined that it had personal jurisdiction over the named Respondents?
II. Whether the [trial c]ourt properly denied full faith and credit to a foreign adoption order and its underlying statutory law and common law?
III. Whether the [trial c]ourt properly determined that a non-resident, adopted adult qualifies as an heir-at-law or ...

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