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April 03, 2016

COA: Nature, not necessarily nurture, establishes the familial link for inheritance purposes involving a posthumously-born child

In In re Estate of Kenneth James Koehler, No. 322996, the Michigan Court of Appeals held that applying MCL 700.2114(4), which precludes inheritance through a parent who refused to support the deceased child and who failed to openly treat the child as his own, to this case would render other sections of the Estates and Protected Individuals Code (“EPIC”), MCL 700.1101 et seq. meaningless.  It further held that the maternal relatives of the decedent failed to meet their burden of proof in showing that decedent’s father had disclaimed support for his son.
 
In 1931, Carl Cedrick Umble had a child on the way with Florence Koehler when he was stabbed and killed by another man.  That child, named Carl James Koehler, was born three months later to single mother Koehler.  Carl James Koehler had a half-brother from his father’s previous marriage named Ernest Lee Umble.  Carl James Koehler and Anna York later married and the couple produced a son named Kenneth James Koehler, the decedent in the present case.  Kenneth Koehler had no spouse, children or siblings and he died without a will.  Kenneth’s maternal cousin, Sherry Bierkle, successfully petitioned the probate court to be named the personal representative of Kenneth’s estate. 
 
When Bierkle filed the final proposed settlement of the estate among Kenneth’s maternal relatives, Ernest Umble, Kenneth’s uncle intervened.  Umble argued that as the sole surviving paternal relative, half of Kenneth’s estate belonged to him.  Bierkle and the other maternal relatives challenged Umble’s claim by arguing that MCL 700.2114(4) precluded Umble’s inheritance.  The probate court conducted an evidentiary hearing regarding the paternity of Carl Koehler, Kenneth’s father, and found that Carl Koehler’s father was Carl Cedric Umble.  In light of this finding, the probate court determined that Ernest Umble was the only surviving relative on Kenneth’s paternal side and therefore he would take half of Kenneth’s estate.  It further decided that applying MCL 700.2114(4) to this case would render other sections of the EPIC meaningless and rejected Bierkle’s claim.  Bierkle appealed.
 
Under the EPIC, if a decedent has no surviving descendants, parents or descendants of parents, then the probate court must determine whether there are any descendants of the decedent’s grandparents. MCL 700.2103(d).  If so, half of the decedent’s estate will pass to the paternal grandparents or their descendants and the other half will pass to the decedent’s maternal grandparents or their descendants. MCL 700.2103(d).  In this case, Kenneth Koehler died without any surviving descendants, parents or descendants of parents and therefore, MCL 700.2103(d) applied.  The Court of Appeals upheld the probate court’s finding that Carl Koehler’s father was Carl Cedric Umble, and therefore, Ernest Umble was entitled to half of Kenneth’s estate under the EPIC.  Furthermore, the Court upheld the probate court’s determination that MCL 700.2113(4), if applied to this case would render other sections of the EPIC meaningless.  The Court held that the exception in subsection (4) “requires proof of two facts: that the natural parent failed to ‘openly treat the child as his,’ and that the natural parent ‘refused to support the child.’”  Here, the Court held, Bierkle provided no evidence to suggest that Carl Cedric Umble refused to support Carl Koehler.  In addition, the Court agreed with the probate court that the Legislature never intended subsection (4) to apply to a child born to a father who died before the child’s birth, which was the scenario in the present case.  According to the Court, “[a] father who dies before his child is born is incapable of ‘treating the child as his’” and thus incapable of disclaiming the child.  The Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court’s holding.
 
In dissent, Judge O’Connell, would have held that MCL 700.3407 places the burden on a petitioner in proving heirship.  Because Ernest Umble was attempting to prove heirship, the burden should have been placed on him.  Further, Judge O’Connell concluded that the probate court erred when holding that MCL 700.2114(4) cannot apply when a parent dies before a child is born.  Judge O’Connell would have held that Umble was not barred from inheriting as a matter of law. 

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