Under New York law, when a child dies, a parent can be disqualified from inheriting from the child’s estate under two conditions. First, the parent can be disqualified if the parent did not provide support to the child as when the child was under the age of 21. Second, the parent can be disqualified if the parent abandoned the child. EPTL § 4-1.4.
In Matter of the Estate of Chatham, the administrator of the minor child’s estate was the child’s mother. She petitioned the court requesting that the child’s post-deceased father be disqualified based on abandonment and failure to support. The widow of the child’s father objected to the child’s mother’s petition to disqualify the child’s father.
The father was 17 years old when the child was born. Even though the father’s name was not on the child’s birth certificate, the child’s paternity was not in dispute. Shortly before the child’s birth, when the father was told that the mother was about to give birth, he responded, “good luck.” The father and mother lived together for a short time after the child was born. Thereafter, the father had occasionally saw the child in the neighbor and spent time with him. However, the amounted of time is in dispute. The father did financially support the child other than occasional gifts.
When the child was injured in an accident, the father was advised of his condition and visited him the hospital. The child died on October 5, 1992 at the age of 15. The father died nearly 2 years later on June 30, 1994.
The Surrogate’s Court focused its analysis on the issue of abandonment. Abandonment is defined as that a parent voluntarily breaching or neglecting their duty to care for and to supervise and guide the child’s growth and development.
The court acknowledges evidence presented by the objectant that the father and the child were affectionate to each other and that they did see each other. However, the court gave great weight to evidence presented by both the mother and the objectant that the father’s contact with the child was at most sporadic and by happenstance. In other words, there were no scheduled regularly scheduled parenting time with the father or even unscheduled, but fairly regular and meaningful time with the father.
The places a duty on parents to raise their children. This means that the parent must be present in the life of a child such that they care for, train, and guide the child. As the court put it, raising a child is more than “shooting the breeze” with the child or interacting with the child “when by chance he happens to pass by the corner that the parent frequents on a regular basis.”
The court concluded that if a parent never initiated a plan to be regularly involved in a child’s life or to regularly communicate with the child, they would not be entitled to share in their estate or any other money that resulted from the child’s death. Thus, the court concluded that in this case the father (the father’s estate) is disqualified from receiving a portion of wrongful death or conscious pain and suffering settlement proceeds based on the manner of the child’s death.
Because the court concluded that the father was disqualified based on abandoning the child, the court did not need to address issue of disqualification based on failure to provide financial support. However, the court noted that based on the evidence presented, the father provided only minimal support.
Typically minors do not leave significant assets in their estates and do not have wills. Through intestate succession, the child’s parents would be considered their next of kin and would be the beneficiaries of the child’s estate. Although not detailed in the court’s decision, it appears as if the child’s death was the result of an accident and that his estate received a financial settlement which was probably significant. The mother sought to prevent the father and the father’s family from sharing in whatever settlement was awarded from the child’s accidental death.