Doe v. Doe, — So.3d —-, 2009 WL 2841190 (Fla. 2d DCA Sep 04, 2009)

2d DCA: “The Trustees’ expansive reading of Article XVIII’s restriction of the trusts’ class gifts to ‘descendants by blood’ as requiring genetic testing to determine membership in the class ignores the lessons of legal history. . . . The phrase ‘descendants by blood’ is a legal term of art, not a scientific one. As a legitimate child of one of the settlors’ sons, Catherine qualifies as one of the settlors’ ‘descendants by blood.’”

As DNA testing becomes evermore widespread, Florida probate judges and practitioners alike can expect they’ll have to grapple with its implications with greater frequency. For example, does DNA testing trump a prior paternity adjudication for purposes of intestate succession? In a 2007 opinion (Glover v. Miller) the 4th DCA said “NO” [click here]. (For an excellent discussion of DNA testing within the context of divorce proceedings see The Presumptions of Privette: Have They Perished with the Coming of Daniel and Disestablishment of Paternity.)

This time around – in a case of first impression – the question was whether DNA testing trumps traditional trust construction doctrine as applied to the phrase “descendants by blood.”

Believe it or not, for trust construction purposes someone can be your “blood relative,” even if DNA testing proves conclusively that you’re not biologically related to that person. Does this make sense? Yes, if your primary goal is to figure out the settlor’s testamentary intent at the time he signed his trust agreement. When construing a trust agreement it’s what was going on in the settlor’s head at the time he signed the document that matters most, not the empirically-verifiable facts in existence years later at the time the trust is being administered.

Two points addressed in the linked-to opinion warrant special attention.

1.  Do you think we can get a court order compelling a DNA test?

If you’re a probate lawyer and you haven’t had someone ask you this question yet, just wait, sooner or later someone will. And when they do, consider the strong hint given by the 2d DCA on how it would have ruled if someone had given it a chance to block the DNA test compelled in this case:

FN3. Catherine did not seek review by certiorari of the circuit court order directing her to submit to further DNA testing [under Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.360(a)]. Moreover, Catherine has not challenged the propriety of that order on this appeal. In any event, the testing order is moot. The testing has already occurred, and the results have been disclosed to the parties and to the court. For these reasons, we express no opinion on the propriety of the circuit court’s order for compulsory DNA testing. Cf. Contino v. Estate of Contino, 714 So.2d 1210, 1214 (Fla. 3d DCA 1998) (holding that the personal representative of an intestate estate was not entitled to an order for the DNA testing of a child born into wedlock to establish whether the decedent was the child’s biological father).

2.  The “lessons of legal history” vs. DNA testing: Who wins?

In the linked-to opinion the trustees argued that if DNA testing proves that a person isn’t biologically related to the settlor, then she’s automatically disqualified from being considered one of the settlor’s “descendants by blood.” The 2d DCA does a great job of deconstructing that argument and coming to its apparently counter-intuitive conclusion in a way that should make sense to most trusts and estates lawyers.

The Trustees’ argument overlooks the meaning of the term “descendants by blood” and similar expressions as they have been used historically in wills and trusts in connection with the limitation of class gifts to persons related to the testator, the settlor, or some other designated person. Before the advent of modern genetic testing in the last twenty to thirty years, a challenge such as the one the Trustees have brought against Catherine-challenging the paternity of a child born in wedlock-would have been all but unthinkable. The legitimacy of a child born in wedlock is one of the strongest rebuttable presumptions known to the law. See Eldridge v. Eldridge, 16 So.2d 163, 163-64 (Fla.1944). In addition to facing a very high level of proof, the challenger would have found it difficult-if not impossible-to assemble the evidence necessary to prove such a claim. See Chris W. Altenbernd, Quasi-Marital Children: The Common Law’s Failure in Privette and Daniel Calls for Statutory Reform, 26 Fla. St. U.L.Rev. 219, 236 (1999). Only with the relatively recent development of genetic testing has the proof necessary to overcome the presumption of legitimacy become generally available. Id. at 237; Mary R. Anderlik, Disestablishment Suits: What Hath Science Wrought?, 4 J. Center for Fams., Child. & Cts. 3, 3-4 (2003).

Of course, the use of terms such as “descendants by blood” and similar expressions to limit class gifts began long before genetic testing became available. Such expressions are terms of art that have been traditionally used-sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully-to limit class gifts to persons related to the testator, settlor, or other designated person by a blood relationship and thus to exclude adopted persons. See, e.g., Papin v. Papin, 445 S.W.2d 350, 352-53 (Mo.1969) (holding that a class gift in a trust to “heirs at law by blood related to the grantor” excluded adopted persons); Fifth Third Bank v. Crosley, 669 N.E.2d 904, 909 (Ohio Ct.Com.Pl.1996) (holding that a trust provision limiting a class gift to the “lawful issue of the blood of the Trustor” excluded adoptees); Trust Agreement of Cyrus D. Jones Dated June 24, 1926, 607 A.2d 265, 270 (Pa.Super.Ct.1992) (holding that a trust agreement limiting a class gift to the “lawful issue of the blood” did not exclude adopted descendants). In the modern era, the trend has been away from a focus on blood relationships and toward treating the adoptee as a full member of his or her adoptive family. See Jan Ellen Rein, Relatives by Blood, Adoption, and Association: Who Should Get What and Why, 37 Vand. L.Rev. 711, 713-17 (1984). However, modern legal forms continue to recognize the traditional use of the “blood” restriction by defining “descendants” to include persons whose relationship to the designated ancestor is by blood or by adoption. See, e.g., 20A Am.Jur. Legal Forms 2d § 266:53, p. 370 (2009) (“Whenever used in this Will, the word “descendants” or the word “issue” shall mean legitimate descendants of whatever degree, including descendants both by blood and by adoption.”). Thus, by expanding the definition of “descendants” to include adoptees, adopted persons may be included within the terms of class gifts to descendants.

The Trustees’ expansive reading of Article XVIII’s restriction of the trusts’ class gifts to “descendants by blood” as requiring genetic testing to determine membership in the class ignores the lessons of legal history. Because the blood restriction came to be used in wills and trusts to exclude adoptees from class gifts long before genetic testing became available, the meaning of these old expressions cannot reasonably be extended beyond the exclusion of adopted persons to disqualify descendants such as Catherine who were not adopted and who would otherwise qualify as a beneficiary of the class gifts but who happen to lack the requisite genetic profile from the settlors.FN5 Thus a proper interpretation of the limitation of the trusts’ class gifts to “only children and descendants by blood” does not support the Trustees’ argument.FN6

To put it in a nutshell, the trusts’ Article XVIII appears in legal instruments, not in a technical paper on genetics. The phrase “descendants by blood” is a legal term of art, not a scientific one. As a legitimate child of one of the settlors’ sons, Catherine qualifies as one of the settlors’ “descendants by blood.”

*     *     *     *     *

Because Catherine is the legitimate child of her legal father, Chester III, she is, by operation of law, the “blood issue” of Chester III. It follows that she is a “descendant by blood” of the settlors and is within the class of persons entitled to take under the trusts. To paraphrase what another court said in a case involving similar facts, Catherine cannot be Chester III’s daughter for only some purposes. See In re Trust Created by Agreement Dated Dec. 20, 1961, 765 A.2d 746, 759 (N.J.2001). Thus the circuit court erred as a matter of law in determining that Catherine was not a “descendant by blood” of Chester Jr. and Eleanor.