Solution To The Sometimes Harsh Application Of The Intestacy Laws? Make A Will!

Louis Acerra, the decedent, died at the age of 30 from injuries he suffered in a house fire. He survived more than two years after the fire before finally succumbing to those injuries. During those two years, he was cared for by Richard Litwin.

Litwin had been in a relationship with the decedent’s mother when the decedent was born. He lived with the decedent’s mother until her death, and with the decedent for his entire life. Litwin raised the decedent, provided him with food, shelter, and college assistance. During the two years following the house fire, Litwin paid for the decedent’s living expenses and arranged for his medical care. In 1995, when the decedent was 14, Litwin had been awarded custody of him. However, Litwin was not the decedent’s stepfather, and had never legally adopted him.

The decedent died without a will. At the time of his death, he had no children or siblings. His mother and grandparents were deceased, and his biological father was never identified. Litigation over his death resulted in a large settlement for the estate, and Litwin and the decedents’ various relatives asserted their respective claims to his intestate estate.

Litwin’s claims were dismissed by the chancery court, and the Appellate Division affirmed the dismissal. Litwin had claimed that he had the right to inherit because he was the decedent’s presumed legal father under New Jersey’s Parentage Act, N.J.S.A. 9:17-38 to -58. The Appellate Division acknowledged that, for purposes of determining a person’s right to inherit an intestate estate, a parent/child relationship may be determined according to the Parentage Act.  However, although he might have met the statutory definition of a presumed biological father under N.J.S.A. 9:17-32(a), that statutory presumption is rebutted by establishing that another person is the child’s biological father, and DNA testing had confirmed that Litwin was not the natural father. Next, Litwin claimed that he was entitled to inherit based on N.J.S.A. 3B:5-14.1, which provides that a parent who has abandoned a child loses the right to intestate succession. Litwin apparently claimed that the decedent’s remote relatives (aunts and uncles) had no right to his estate because they purportedly neglected the decedent. The court rejected this claim, finding that the statutory provision applied to parents, not to more remote relatives. Finally, Litwin argued that, as the decedent’s “psychological father,” he should inherit the same intestate share that a biological or adoptive father would have. The court disagreed: “Acting as a child’s psychological parent does not confer a parent and child relationship for purposes of intestate succession.” Although it recognized the concept of psychological parentage in matters of child custody, visitation and child support, the court refused to extend the concept to the area of intestacy law.  It reasoned that, regardless of a decedent’s wishes, intestacy distribution is based upon the application of the intestacy statute and that, “for those dissatisfied with distribution by intestacy, the simple answer is to execute a will.”

A copy of In the Matter of the Estate of Acerra can be found here – In the Matter of the Estate of Louis M. Acerra

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