Many people fail to make a last will and testament because they simply assume their heirs, such as a spouse or child, automatically inherit their property under the law. While it is true the law provides for persons who die intestate-that is, without a will-it is never a good idea to rely on this process, as it may produce outcomes you do not intend. This is especially true when dealing with atypical family situations.
Jones v. Brown
Here is a recent illustration from the California Court of Appeals. Lonza Jones died in 2009 at the age of 81. Jones had one surviving sibling, Mathis Jones. Another sibling died several decades earlier; Lonza Jones raised that sibling’s children, including Elinda G. Edwards.
If Jones died without leaving a spouse or any biological children, California intestacy law would give his entire estate to Mathis Jones as the only surviving sibling. But shortly after Jones’ death, Elinda Edwards filed a petition to probate her uncle’s estate in which she claimed he had two biological children, Wallace L. Wright and Johnniese Peterson Exum.
Wright was apparently deceased. Stephanie Brown, Wright’s daughter, filed her own petition for appointment as administrator of her purported grandfather’s estate. Mathis Jones opposed the appointment of either Brown or Edwards. Jones further claimed neither Wallace Wright nor Exum were his brother’s child.
The probate court appointed Brown as administrator for the estate, which had assets of about $60,000. Mathis Jones claimed some of those funds were improperly transferred from a joint account he held with his late brother. Jones demanded Brown’s removal as administrator and continued to challenge the paternity of Exum, the sole surviving heir.
The probate court denied all of Mathis Jones’ motions. The California Court of Appeal affirmed the probate court on all issues. The appeals court said Jones waited too long to appeal Brown’s appointment as administrator. He also failed to provide an adequate evidentiary record to challenge the probate judge’s findings on the other issues.
With respect to the question of Exum’s paternity, the Court of Appeals noted that “snippets of the record show the probate court had evidence that, during his lifetime, decedent acknowledged Exum as his daughter, including taking her into his home and claiming to be her father in school records.”
If a child’s biological paternity is not naturally presumed-i.e., the child is born to married parents or the father’s name is listed on the birth certificate-California intestacy law requires some other evidence that the person is an heir. In the Jones case, Exum established paternity through “clear and convincing evidence that the father has openly held the child as his own.” However, a prior court order declaring paternity or clear and convincing evidence that the person is a child’s father is also sufficient.
Of course, paternity becomes less of an issue when the deceased leaves a will specifying his chosen beneficiaries. Had Lonza Jones signed a will leaving his entire estate to Exum-assuming that was his wish-his brother would have had no legal grounds to challenge that decision. It wouldn’t matter whether or not Exum was Jones’ biological daughter.
This is just one example of how a lack of a will creates unnecessary confusion among heirs and family members. You can avoid a similar circumstance by working with an experienced California estate planning attorney. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today for a consultation.