Take-Away: A father had his parental rights terminated by a court for abuse and neglect. The father then died.  A state Supreme Court held that the daughter to whom his parental rights had been terminated could not inherit from her deceased father’s estate, as their relationship was terminated, in a sense,  ‘both ways.’ Welcome to the bewildering world of intestate succession rights.

Background: In a case that dealt with the interpretation of the parent-child relationship set-forth in an intestate succession statute, the West Virginia Supreme Court held that a child could not inherit from her deceased father, since the father’s parental rights to that child had been previously terminated in an abuse and neglect legal proceeding by court order. Hall v. Hall No. 17-0452 (West Virginia, May 11, 2018.)

Key to the Court’s decision is that it focused on the statute’s reference to the relationship of parent and child, specifically noting the use of the conjunctive and when the statute described that relationship. The Court felt that it had to give weight to both words, parent as well as child: “the use of ‘and’ clearly makes both conditions necessary, not merely either of the two.’ Moving then to the definition of parent the Court found that a court order that terminates all rights of an individual’s parental rights completely severs the parent-child relationship and, as a consequence of such order of termination, the law no longer recognizes that individual as a ‘parent’ with regard to the children involved in the termination proceeding. Because the relationship is severed by virtue of a court order that  terminates parental rights, the individual whose parental rights have been terminated is not be entitled to take as an inheritor from the subject child’s estate, and thus that individual no longer meets the definition of parent under West Virginia’s intestate succession statute. The result is that since there is no longer a parent, one of the two conditions to the application of the intestacy laws was not met, and consequently the daughter, while arguably physically related to the decedent, is no longer his legal child and thus she could not inherit from a non-parent. In light of this harsh result, the Court in its decision asked West Virginia’s legislature to change the state’s probate statutes as a matter of public policy. It should be noted, too, that there were a couple of strongly worded dissents to this majority decision.

Michigan’s Rule: The Michigan succession statute provides that the entire decedent’s intestate estate, if there is no surviving spouse, passes to ‘the following individuals who survive the decedent: the decedent’s descendants by representation.’ [MCL 700.7103(a).]  This then takes us back to the definitions provided by the Estates and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC.)

  • Child: Child includes, but is not limited to, an individual entitled to take as a child under this act by intestate succession from a parent whose relationship is involved. Child does not include an individual who is only a stepchild, a foster child, or a grandchild or more remote descendant. [MCL 700.1103(f).]
  • Descendant: Descendant means, ‘in relationship to an individual, all of his or her descendants of all generations, with the relationship of parent and child at each generation being determined by the definitions of child and parent contained in this act.’ [MCL 700. 1103(k).] Note that descendant and issue have the same meaning under EPIC. [MCL 700.1105(d).]
  • Parent: Parent  includes, but is not limited to, an individual entitled to take, or who would be entitled to take, as a parent under this act by intestate succession from a child who dies without a will and whose relationship is in question. Parent does not include an individual who is only a stepparent, foster parent, or grandparent. [MCL 700.1106(i).]

Note that Michigan’s intestate succession statute contains reference to the parent and child. Moreover EPIC describes parent as one who is entitled to take by intestate succession from a deceased child who died without a will. The West Virginia Supreme Court decided that since the father’s inheritance rights were terminated, he could not take as an inheritor from his daughter if she had died intestate, resulting in the father no longer being treated as her parent. I wonder if a Michigan court would reach the same result under its intestate succession statute?

Tangential Michigan Statutes and Court Decisions: While not directly on point when addressing the rights of a child to inherit from a parent whose parental rights are terminated by court order, it is interesting to review some other EPIC provisions with regard to intestacy that frequently go unread.

  • Adoption:  An adopted child is the child of his or her adoptive parent or parents and not of his or her natural parents. An adoption of a child by the spouse of either natural parent has no effect on either the relationship between the child and that natural parent or the right of the child or a descendant of the child to inherit from or through the other natural parent.  Due process does not require that an adoptee and the adoptive parents be informed that the adoption will terminate rights to inherit from and through natural parents. In re Saylor, No. 256521, 2005 Mich. App. LEXIS 3244 (December 22, 2005.) A child adopted by a stepparent remains an heir of their natural parent who is married to the stepparent. [MCL 700.211(2).] The adopted child also retains the ability to inherit from or through their other natural parent. [MCL 700.2114(3).]
  • Inheritance by Parent: Inheritance from or through a child by either natural parent or his or her ‘kindred’ [a term not defined in EPIC] is precluded unless that natural parent has openly treated the child as his or hers, and had not refused to support the child. [MCL 700.21114(4).] Accordingly, if the parent failed to openly treat the child as his or hers and also refused to support the child, that parent may not inherit from the deceased child. In re Koehler, 314 Mich App 667 (2016). The continuity and mutually acknowledged parent-child relationship was not interrupted or destroyed when the child had been incarcerated for 10 years. In re Estate of Ward, No327991, 2016 Mich. App. LEXIS 1824 (October 6, 2016.) There is no statutory requirement to find a biological connection for the determination of a parent-child relationship. In re Estate of Daniels, 310 Mich App, 450 (2013). When a putative father failed to treat his daughter openly as his own when she was a child, and he refused on numerous times to support her by expressly denying that she was his child, he was not entitled to inherit from her estate. In re Estate of Turpening, 258 Mich. App. 464 (2003).
  • Half-Siblings: A relative of a half-blood inherits the same share he or she would inherit if he or she were of the whole blood. [MCL 700.2107.]  Example: Mom and Dad divorce when they had two children, Harry and William. Mom and Dad then remarry other persons after their divorce. Mom has 5 more children during her second marriage. Mom and Dad both die. Harry then dies intestate and without a spouse or without any descendants, survived by William and Harry’s 5 half-siblings through Mom’s second marriage. Harry’s intestate estate is divided into 6 equal shares, William receiving only one of those 6 shares. The family of Harry’s father receives substantially less than the family of Harry’s mother. Only when there is an allocation to or through grandparents would Harry’s intestate estate be divided one-half to the paternal side and one-half to the maternal side. [MCL 700.2103(c).]
  • After-born Heirs: An individual in gestation at a particular time is treated as living at that time if the individual lives 120 hours or more after birth. [MCL 700.2108.]
  • Alienage: An individual is not disqualified to take as an heir because the individual, or an individual through whom he or she claims, is or has been an alien i.e. of foreign birth. [MCL 700.2111.]
  • Related by Two Lines: An individual who is related to the decedent through two lines of relationship is entitled to only a single share based on the relationship that would entitle that individual to the larger share. [MCL 700.2113.]
  • Children Conceived after Parent’s Death: Children who were conceived after their father’s death through assisted reproductive technology were neither living at their father’s death nor in gestation at that time. Consequently they were unable to inherit from their father under Michigan’s intestate succession laws. Mattison v. Social Security Administration ( In re Certified Question) 493 Mich. 70 (2012). This result may soon change if EPIC is amended to address the rights of children who are the product of artificial reproduction technology which is pending before the state Legislature.

Conclusion: I could not find, in an admittedly cursory search, a comparable decision in Michigan that addressed the child’s right of inheritance when parental rights have been formally terminated by court order. I do note, however, that EPIC’s definition of  parent includes the ‘right or entitlement to take by intestate succession’ on which the West Virginia Supreme Court’s decision seemed to turn. In addition, EPIC describes descendants, which is used to describe the right of inheritance under intestate succession [MCL 700.2103(a)] using the phrase parent and child at each generation;  the West Virginia Supreme Court found that both statuses [which it termed ‘conditions’] must be present for there to be any rights of inheritance, i.e. two conditions, not just one, and that court order that terminated rights as a parent indirectly forfeited the child’s right of inheritance from her father. Perhaps Michigan’s Legislature needs to ‘fix’ this possible problem of statutory construction if our courts look at EPIC in the same manner that West Virginia’s Court looked at its statute of descent. It is best to not rely on Michigan’s intestate succession statute to distribute an individual’s wealth in light of the multiple presumptions contained several statutes that must be followed to implement the distribution of an decedent’s estate. Use a will, trust, or beneficiary designation to distribute assets on death and don’t rely on the Michigan legislature to distribute those assets for you.