Kaplin Stewart

Parents as intestate heirs or ‘No, really, where have you been?’ p2

Parents should not outlive their children, but it happens. A car accident, a terminal illness, a congenital anomaly, a drug overdose — the world is a dangerous place, and life is fraught with risks. Parents try to keep their children safe and to teach them how to protect themselves from all the bad things that can happen. Parents cannot, however, turn back the clock or take the child’s place in that car or in that examination room.

In our last post, we were talking about actor Cory Monteith’s lack of an estate plan at the time of his death in 2013. The rules of intestacy dictate that his parents will take equal shares. However, his mother pointed out in court documents that his father had been absent from Monteith’s life for more than a decade. Monteith was 9 years old when his parents split; his father did not pay child support and did not spend time with the boy. They reconnected before Monteith died, but, according to his mother, that was not enough. His father agreed and relinquished his share of the estate.

Pennsylvania law has some strict laws about what a parent must do in order to qualify as an intestate heir. The state has limited those behaviors, however, to periods of one year or greater. If a parent walks out in January but comes back from Christmas, he or she could still inherit.

First, a parent must support the child or, at the very least, not desert the child. The statute defines “support” quite broadly. The court will look at “the quality, nature and extent of the parent’s contact with the child” as well as “the physical, emotional and financial support provided to the child.” These factors are very similar, if not identical, to the factors family courts consider when determining custody. The message is clear: Parenting is more than writing a check or sending gifts at birthdays and holidays.

Second, a parent cannot have been convicted of a crime against children, including concealing the death of a child, sexually abusing a child or endangering the welfare of a child. That conviction need not have taken place in Pennsylvania: A conviction in any other state or in federal court would also disqualify a parent.

The rules can be tough. The best way to avoid having the court scrutinize your family relationships is to write an estate plan.

Source: Pennsylvania Statutes (Annotated), § 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106 (West), via WestlawNext