By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold, NJ Probate Estate Litigation Attorney
In this case, a young teenager, Michael, died intestate at age 15 (without a last will). Mom was appointed as the administratrix of Michael’s estate. As often is the case, the absentee parent came out of nowhere to claim a portion of her child’s estate because of the lawsuit filed on behalf of the decedent child’s estate.
N.J.S.A. 3B:5-14.1, which became effective on July 1, 2009, provides in pertinent part that:
- A parent of a minor or an adult decedent shall lose all right of intestate succession in any part of the decedent’s estate… if:
(1) The parent refused to acknowledge the decedent or abandoned the decedent when the decedent was a minor by willfully forsaking the decedent, failed to care for and protect the child so that the child was exposed to physical or moral risk without proper and sufficient protection, or failed to care for and keep the control and custody of the decedent so that the child was in the care, custody and control of the state at the time of death…
[ (emphasis added) ].
In this case, the surviving parent filed a complaint seeking to bar her ex-husband from receiving a share of Michael’s estate under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-14.1(b). She alleged that her ex husband Michael (after the parties’ divorce) failed to have any contact with the child or pay his full child support obligation.
The judge noted that the ex had no contact with his son after 2002, and moved to Florida in 2006, “failed to voluntarily comply with his child support obligations, which resulted in a wage garnishment and substantial arrears as of the date of his son’s death.” The judge concluded:
The paradigm case of abandonment by willfully forsaking [a child] would be where a parent, with uninhibited rights of custody and visitation, chooses to leave the familial unit, has no further involvement with the child, and provides no voluntary support for the child. This is such a case.
The trial judge stated, “that it may not have been the deadbeat parents specific intent or purpose to abandon his son.”
But that the actions of the ex spouse
“were unequivocally intentional rather than accidental or involuntary. His choice not to attend his supervised visits with his son and court[-]mandated anger management therapy was not accidental or involuntary. His failure to voluntarily fulfill his child support obligations was not accidental or involuntary. And ultimately, the absence of his presence from the remainder of his son’s regrettably short life was not accidental or involuntary.
The deadbeat father appealed.
Amazing the Appellate Division reversed. What were they thinking? How could they allow this? Well, in this twisted analysis of facts and the law whether the ex “abandoned” Michael turns upon an interpretation of N.J.S.A. 3B:5-15.1(b)(1).
Said the court, “it is well settled that the goal of statutory interpretation is to ascertain and effectuate the Legislature’s intent.”
Our analysis of a statute begins with its plain language, giving the words their ordinary meaning and significance.
A court may also consider “extrinsic evidence if a plain reading of the statute leads to an absurd result or if the overall statutory scheme is at odds with the plain language.” DiProspero v. Penn, 183 N.J. 477, 493 (2005).
The court relief on punctuation to reach its decision! Can you believe it, like the NJ legislature ever reads a statute before they vote on it!
Based upon the well-established rule of statutory construction and the plain language of the statute, the appellate court conclude that a parent may lose his or her right to intestate succession if the parent abandons the child when he or she is a minor by: (1) “willfully forsaking the decedent”; (2) “willfully failing to care for and keep the control and custody of the child so since child support was occasionally be paid via income withholding through the… Probation Department…” Thus, this is not a case where a parent has willfully withheld all support from a child.
After a lengthy review of the child’s life and the history of the father’s relationship with his son, the court concluded that he did not demonstrate by a preponderance of evidence the abandonment of her child “by willfully forsaking” him. Therefore, the exception to lawful intestate succession as set forth in N.J.S.A. 3B:5-14(b)(1) would not be invoked in this case. A disgraceful result. A disgraceful analysis. Another example of a miscarriage of “justice”.
To discuss your NJ Probate Estate Litigation matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.