Thursday, April 23, 2015

Stennett v. Britel (Cal. Ct. App. - April 23, 2015)

Anime Britel was a world-class triathelete.  In 1999, he met Jackie Stennett while they were both at the Harvard Business School, and they had a romantic relationship.  Jackie got pregnant.

Fast forward to 2011.  Mr. Britel was riding his bike when he was killed in by a drunk driver who was texting on her phone.  He was 41.

He also had no will.

Under the usual California intestacy laws, Mr. Britel's mother -- his only surviving relative -- would get everything.  But Ms. Stennett files a petition that claims that Mr. Britel's estate should go to her daughter, A.S.

A.S. is, indeed, Mr. Britel's biological daughter as well.  She was born as a result of Mr. Britel and Ms. Stennett's relationship in 1999.

California's intestacy rules provide that A.S. qualifies as Mr. Britel's heir so long as he "openly held out the child as his own."  See whether you think the following facts make such a case:

"In the fall of 1999, Amine and Jackie met at Harvard Business School and developed a romantic relationship. In the early summer of 2000, they graduated. Jackie went to work in Atlanta, Georgia, while Amine moved to Newport Beach, California.

In August 2000, Jackie phoned Amine and told him she was pregnant. The next day, Amine sent Jackie an e-mail message saying he was “devastated,” he would never be able to share the news with his parents, and that having a child out of wedlock was contrary to his Muslim religion and his culture and would bring him “a total shame [he would] have to bear for the rest of [his] life.” Amine continued: “Please understand that I do love you but I am just not ready to be a father right now. I want us to have a child through a legitimate marriage and not outside of wedlock. We need to live together, learn about each other, and then make a committment [sic] for life. I perceive marriage as a very serious engagement. I was devastated for the past two years as a result of a bad marriage. In all fairness, I believe I should be a part of this decision. [¶] It is important for us to meet to discuss this issue as soon as possible and find a suitable arrangement for both of us.”

Later that month or possibly in early September, Jackie visited Amine in California for three or four days. She had initially planned to stay around a week, but the trip was cut short and she returned to Atlanta. Within the next few days, Amine and Jackie spoke by phone between five to 10 times. The end result was that Amine told Jackie not to contact him again and that he did not want her or the baby to be in touch with him or his family.

Amine told his best friend, Youssef Choukri, that Jackie said she was pregnant with his baby, and that his having a child out of wedlock would bring shame to his family (who were highly regarded in Morocco) and might possibly cause Amine to be disinherited. Amine initially told Choukri he was not sure whether Jackie was really pregnant, but that he had told Jackie that if she was indeed pregnant, he would like her to have an abortion.

In late 2000 or early 2001, Amine told Choukri that Jackie had had an abortion. Amine and Choukri never discussed the matter again.

At trial, Jackie testified she never told Amine she had had an abortion.  [The trial court found that Jackie's testimony was "not convincing".]

A.S. was born to Jackie in February 2001. Amine is not listed as the father on A.S.’s birth certificate. Prior to Amine’s death, Jackie never sought a paternity order to determine whether Amine was A.S.’s father. Amine never provided any financial support to A.S., never met her, and never communicated with her.

For many years, Jackie comported with Amine’s request that she not contact him. Then, in November 2006, Jackie sent Amine an e-mail message, which stated in part, “Per your last request I have kept my distance from you for the past six years.” Jackie’s e-mail message informed Amine that A.S. wanted a relationship with him.

Amine did not respond to Jackie’s e-mail message, so Jackie phoned him. In the phone call, Jackie told Amine that A.S. asked about him and wanted him in her life. Amine was “terse and cold,” asked Jackie not to phone him again, and made it clear he wanted nothing to do with Jackie or A.S. This phone call and Jackie’s e-mail message were the only communications between Jackie and Amine from the time A.S. was born until Amine’s death.

Amine was close with his family members, but never told them he had a child."

Those are the facts.  Does you think they qualify as Mr. Britel holding A.S. out as his child?

I didn't think so.  It's not even close.

The Court of Appeal agrees.

Now, I must say, there exists some precedent for an opposite conclusion.  One might hold -- as perhaps a case or two in California have done in dicta -- that "openly" holding out a child as your own simply means admitting paternity.  To anyone.  In which case a concession to the mother might even qualify.

But I think the Court of Appeal is right.  That's not what the Legislature intended.  Or said.

I will also say that I think that Ms. Stennett does have a decent argument on an ancillary point.  Mr. Britel had a child.  Whether he wanted one or not.  As a (biological) father, he's bound to support that child (if he can).  So he'd normally be liable for child support.  Paternity creates that obligation.

But -- in something I didn't know until today (not being a family law practitioner) -- California says that you can only require child support if you file while the parent is still living.  Ms. Stennett didn't seek a declaration of paternity until Mr. Britel was dead.  So under California law, the kid doesn't get anything.  No support.  No inheritance.  Nothing.

Ms. Stennett says that's irrational.  To be honest, I kinda agree.  Why does getting killed relieve you of the obligation to support your child?

I get that in the old days, we might not have wanted posthumous child support filings because we'd want the father to be able to defend himself, and say (if true) that he wasn't the parent, which is hard when you're dead.  But in the modern DNA era, this rationale seems largely irrelevant.  We know (to a 99.9996 probability) that A.S. is Mr. Britel's child.  That'd be more than enough to require child support -- regardless of Mr. Britel's testimony -- if he were alive.  Isn't it irrational to require the filing of a child support claim while the father's still alive?  Isn't that (ancient) requirement so crazy as to be a denial of equal protection?

The Court of Appeal rejects this contention as well.  It says there's a public interest in making sure that the estate gets distributed how the guy wants.  So it makes sense to require that any child support claim be filed while the dude's still alive, rather than once he's dead.

Hmmm.  I'm not so sure.

Seems to me that the whole point of child support is to support the kid.  Regardless of your interests or desires with respect to property distribution.

So where's the underlying public policy?  Why does the "during your lifetime" requirement make sense?  (At least in the face of -- as here -- essentially indisputable DNA evidence.)

Doesn't it also seem like the Court of Appeal's view has some pretty harsh consequences.  Imagine that a kid gets born on April 1 and the biological father gets killed by a drunk driver on the way to the hospital.  No child support then either, since no petition was filed during the guy's lifetime?  Really?

There's a psychological aspect to all of this.  As I first started reading the opinion, I definitely found myself agreeing with the Court of Appeal that this was an open-and-shut case, and that A.S. had not been "openly" acknowledged as Mr. Britel's child.  That sentiment, I think, even bled over to the part of the opinion that discussed the potential Equal Protection problem.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought that Ms. Stennett had a point.  Why do we have the rule we have?  Does it really make sense?

Seems to me we'd want the kid to be cared for.  Regardless of what the mother did or when he elected to do it.

P.S. - Justice Fybel's concurring opinion agrees with a lot of this sentiment, and encourages the Legislature to change the law.  Makes sense to me.  But I wonder if equal protection doesn't require the same outcome in the present case as well.  Even without legislative action.

P.P.S. - It occurred to me overnight that all this may really be an equal protection argument about the child support rules, not the intestacy rules.  Still; an interesting issue, and one that I (like Justice Fybel) garners additional attention.