ALM Properties, Inc.
Page printed from: Delaware Law Weekly
Select 'Print' in your browser menu to print this document.
Child-Support Limitation Ruling May Head to High CourtThe Delaware Supreme Court may soon wrestle with the issue of whether, under the state's Probate Code, child-support claims against a decedent's estate must be filed within eight months after death and cannot be tolled until the child's birth.
2013-07-24 12:00:00 AM
The Delaware Supreme Court may soon wrestle with the issue of whether, under the state's Probate Code, child-support claims against a decedent's estate must be filed within eight months after death and cannot be tolled until the child's birth. The issue is likely to appear before the high court because the Delaware Court of Chancery certified an interlocutory appeal of its ruling denying a woman's child-support claims because they were filed 13 months after the father's death.
"An immediate appeal of the opinion and order admittedly would create delay with regard to the other issues in this case," Vice Chancellor Donald F. Parsons Jr. said in Cummings v. Estate of Lewis.
"The timeliness ... of the child-support claim, however, affects how the parties and this court will proceed related to those other issues. In these circumstances, I am persuaded that resolution now of the issues presented by [the plaintiff's] contemplated appeal of the opinion and order would serve considerations of justice."
Parsons issued the letter opinion July 16.
Ronald E. Lewis died July 23, 2011, at age 65. At the time of his death, he was romantically involved with Louise Cummings, according to court documents. At the time of Lewis' death, Cummings was pregnant with their child. On October 19, 2011, Cummings filed an action against Lewis' estate in the Chancery Court seeking to establish paternity and to claim an inheritance. Cummings gave birth to the child — identified in the opinion by the initials A.L. — on April 15, 2012. Cummings filed a child-support claim against the estate with the New Castle County Register of Wills on August 23, 2012.
Lewis' four adult children and the two co-executors of his estate were named as defendants in Cummings' lawsuit.
Cummings also filed complaints for child support on behalf of her daughter in New Jersey and in the Delaware Family Court.
The defendants countered Cummings' lawsuit by arguing that under Title 12, Section 2102 of the Delaware Code, also known as the Delaware Probate Code, the plaintiff's claims are not timely.
Under Section 2102(a) of the Delaware Probate Code, child-support claims that arise before a parent's death must be made within eight months of the decedent's passing. The defendants asserted that Cummings' August 2012 claim occurred 13 months after Lewis' death.
In response, Cummings argued that her claim falls under Section 2102(b), which requires claims that arose after an individual's death to be filed six months after the date the claim accrued. Cummings asserted her child-support claim arose when her baby was born in April 2012. Furthermore, the plaintiff alleged that child support is a right of the child, which cannot be forfeited by a parent's failure to act.
Parsons disagreed with Cummings' arguments and, in a June 17 opinion, barred her claim for child support. Parsons said the language of Section 2102(a) pertains to all claims, including those "due or to become due, absolute or contingent" and a child-support claim is a claim that would "become due" upon the contingency of the child's birth. Therefore, Cummings' child-support claim is subject to the limitations in Section 2102(a).
"Cummings' claim on behalf of A.L. did not arise from any action by a personal representative of the estate, but instead arose from an act engaged in by the deceased with Cummings," Parsons said. "Cummings' child-support claim was not absolute because A.L. had not been born yet. Instead, the claim was contingent on A.L.'s live birth and was 'to become due' upon the occurrence of her birth. The child-support claim, therefore, was a contingent claim that arose before Lewis died."
Roughly 10 days after Parsons' decision, Cummings filed an application for certification of an interlocutory appeal, which was opposed by the defendants. On July 11, the defendants moved for expedited proceedings and for a preliminary injunction in aid of jurisdiction, which, if granted, would preliminarily enjoin Cummings from pursuing the child-support claim in New Jersey.
Cummings alleged that the interlocutory appeal is necessary because Parsons' opinion addresses novel questions of Delaware law, implicates public policy and affects proceedings in several other courts. The estate countered by claiming that Parsons properly applied settled law to undisputed facts and Cummings' claims should be disregarded because they were not raised in connection with the motion for partial summary judgment that resulted in the June 17 opinion.
Parsons concluded both that Cummings raised a novel issue of law and her claims needed to be resolved so the litigation in the Delaware Family Court and the New Jersey Superior Court's Chancery and Family divisions could move forward. Under Supreme Court Rule 42(b), an interlocutory appeal will not be accepted by the high court unless the trial court determines a substantial issue needed to be resolved.
"An immediate appeal to the Supreme Court would provide certainty to Cummings, the state and the other court as to whether the estate may recognize the child-support claim," Parsons said. "In these circumstances, I conclude that this court's opinion and order determined a substantial issue under Supreme Court Rule 42."
Parsons also said an interlocutory appeal was necessary because it also established a legal right for Cummings. Without the Supreme Court's intervention, he said, there "does not appear to be any possibility that Cummings could prevail on this point at a later state in this litigation."
Finally, Parsons stressed the need for the Supreme Court to resolve the issue of when child-support claims against a decedent's estate are time-barred under the Delaware Probate Code.
"This question relates to the construction of a Delaware statute which has not been settled by the Supreme Court," he said. "Arguably, this question should be settled by the Supreme Court to provide clarity to future claimants for child support against an estate and to the estate receiving such a claim."
Michael A. Weidinger, Joanne P. Pinckney and Kevin M. Capuzzi of Pinckney, Harris & Weidinger and Thomas W. Briggs of Morris, Nichols, Arsht & Tunnell represented Cummings and her child.
The estate and defendants were represented by C. Malcolm Cochran IV, W. Donald Sparks II and Travis S. Hunter of Richards, Layton & Finger.