White v. Marks

 White  v. Marks, --- So. 3d --- (Fla. 5th DCA 2021)

This decision involves a strange set of facts under which a purported heir attempted to assert rights as a beneficiary and child of the decedent, even though she was neither the biological child of the decedent nor adopted by him. The decedent's will specifically provided that the decedent "intentionally made no provision under this will" for his "adopted daughter." This decision ultimately turned on whether (1) the statute of limitations to determine paternity had expired, and (2) whether certain writings were acknowledgements of paternity under F.S. 732.108(2). 

Even though the purported heir was not the biological child of the decedent or adopted by him, his name was listed as her father on her birth certificate. Apparently, her mother was pregnant with her when she met the decedent, and he agreed to be listed on her birth certificate so that she could avoid the social stigma attached to an out-of-wedlock birth. The mother and the decedent had a short relationship, and the purported heir only met the decedent twice as an adult, once in her early twenties and again before he died.

This dispute arose when the beneficiaries of the decedent's estate claimed that the purported heir did not have standing to contest his will. They argued that the statute of limitations to contest paternity had run. The trial court found that she had standing based on certain writings which it held were acknowledgments of paternity under F.S. 731.108(2)(c). The Appellate Court reversed.

F.S. 95.11(3)(b) contains a four year statute of limitations beginning when an individual reaches the age of majority for actions "relating" to paternity. The Court held that an action under F.S. 732.108(2)(c) (governing the intestate rights of adopted persons and persons born out of wedlock) is clearly an action "relating" to paternity such that the four year statute of limitations applied.

Further, the Court held that the three writings put forth by the purported heir as acknowledgments of paternity in writing by the father were not sufficient. It noted that the Florida Supreme Court had previously found that an informal writing could be sufficient to meet the requirement, but the writing must "directly, unequivocally and unquestionably acknowledge[s] the paternity of the illegitimate child." In re McCollum's Estate, 88 So. 2d 537, 540 (Fla. 1956).

The purported heir conceded that her birth certificate would not satisfy the requirement because it was not signed by the decedent. The Court held that neither of her two other writings, the decedent's will and a pocket planner, would be sufficient, and that the decedent's references to her as his "adopted daughter" were descriptive rather than direct, unequivocal acknowledgments of paternity.

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