When is an Heir not an Heir?

When is an Heir not an Heir?

Mississippi inheritance law applies when one dies without a Will or trust.  This law provides that the assets and property of the deceased person will descend to his or her surviving spouse and children in equal shares, or to that person’s parents and siblings if there is no spouse or children.  The entitlement to assets from a deceased person is decided in a “probate” proceeding in Chancery Court.  However, when a person dies as a result of the negligence or fault of another, the heirs of the deceased person may file a “wrongful death” claim in court to recover damages from the loss of their loved one, without a probate proceeding.  A recent Mississippi Supreme Court ruling addressed the differences between an heir for inheritance purposes and an heir for wrongful death purposes.  Alexander v. DeForest, No. 2017-CA-00356-SCT (Jan. 31, 2019)

Matthew Underhill became Matthew DeForest when his father, Jeff Underhill, voluntarily relinquished his parental rights to allow the husband of Matthew’s mother, Steven DeForest, to adopt Matthew.  At the time of DeForest’s adoption, he was a Michigan resident, and the termination of parental rights and adoption occurred in Michigan courts.  Jeff Underhill died as a result of a trucking accident in Mississippi in 2015.  At the time of his death Underhill was unmarried, and he was a resident of Florida.  DeForest filed a wrongful death complaint in the Greene County Circuit Court, and he then filed a petition in the chancery court to determine Underhill’s heirs at law and wrongful death beneficiaries.  In his petition, DeForest named Underhill’s mother and brothers of Underhill.  Of the persons listed, only one brother, Joe Alexander, responded.  After a hearing, the chancery court ruled in favor of DeForest and declared him to be Underhill’s sole heir at law and wrongful death beneficiary.  

Alexander appealed and argued that Michigan law prohibits a child from being considered a wrongful death beneficiary where the child has been adopted by another prior to the parent’s death.   The Mississippi Court addressed a nearly identical issue in a previous case and held that the natural son was a wrongful death beneficiary, despite the fact that the state where the adoption and termination of parental rights occurred prohibited him being considered a wrongful death beneficiary. Thus, the trial court did not err.

Alexander also argued that the chancery court did not have subject matter jurisdiction to determine Underhill’s heirs at law.  Underhill was not a resident of Mississippi nor did he have any real or personal property located within Mississippi.  He has no estate open or pending in a Mississippi chancery court.  The only action in Mississippi is the pending wrongful death action in Greene County Circuit Court.  

Probate proceedings are to be filed where the deceased person lived or owned property, and the inheritance heirs are to be decided in such a proceeding.  While the chancery court did not have jurisdiction to determine Underhill’s heirs at law, the chancery court did not determine Underhill’s heirs at law for inheritance purposes.  Because of the pending wrongful death action, the chancery court did have subject matter jurisdiction to determine Underhill’s statutory wrongful death beneficiaries, and the court did exactly that.  The chancery court found “that Matthew Bryan DeForest is the sole and only heir-at-law of the decedent for the purposes of the wrongful death action.”  Any reading of the chancery court’s judgment to imply that the heirs at law for the purpose of his estate have been determined by the chancery court is mistaken.

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