In Re: Estate of John E. Robinson, — So.3d —-, 2020 WL 697795 (Fla. 3d DCA February 12, 2020)
If a man dies intestate, any children he had while married are automatically considered his heirs, and entitled to a share of his estate as determined by F.S. 732.103. Not so for out-of-wedlock children. If those heirs want to claim a share of their father’s estate, and someone objects, they’re required to prosecute a paternity claim.
So can you prosecute paternity claims in probate proceedings? Yes, but only if the claim’s not time barred. Here’s the problem, F.S. 95.11(3)(b) imposes a 4-year statute of limitations for paternity actions, starting as of the date the putative child turns 18.
By the time paternity’s being litigated in a probate proceeding, the claimant’s almost always a middle aged adult. Which means F.S. 95.11(3)(b) effectively bars 99% of all paternity actions in probate proceedings … even if you have irrefutable DNA evidence.
The legislative fix came in 2009 when F.S. 732.108(2)(b) was amended for the express purpose of ensuring that F.S. 95.11 does NOT bar paternity actions in probate proceedings. As explained in the bill’s Legislative Staff Analysis, the change was intended to
allow a determination of paternity to be made in a probate proceeding solely for the purpose of proving heirship even if it is after four years from the date the child attained majority. Without this change, current case law prohibits a person from proving that someone is her father, even if she has hard scientific data proving it. Her brother, born to the same father but a different mother, could prove his heirship, if, for example, his parents participated in a marriage ceremony, even if the “marriage” is void. The comparative result is fundamentally unfair and depends entirely on the type of proof the two siblings have.
Are Florida’s courtroom doors closed to older Floridians seeking to establish paternity in probate proceedings, but wide open for everyone else? YES
Great, so problem solved right? Nope. The 2009 legislative change wasn’t retroactive. In other words, the new statute helps you only if your paternity claim wasn’t already time barred in 2009. It didn’t revive previously time-barred claims.
So if you happen to have been age 21 or younger in 2009 (i.e., your paternity action wasn’t already time barred), you’re good to go. On the other hand, if you happen to have been age 22 or older in 2009 (18 + 4 = 22), you remain forever time barred from adjudicating paternity in a Florida probate proceeding.
The reason for why the statutory change isn’t retroactive was explained by the 3d DCA in Rose v. Sonson (a similar paternity case I reported on here):
“[o]nce a claim has been extinguished by the applicable statute of limitations, the claim cannot be revived because a constitutionally protected property right to be free from the claim has vested in the defendant.” Id. at 1210; see also Wiley v. Roof, 641 So.2d 66, 68 (Fla. 1994) (“Once the defense of the statute of limitations has accrued, it is protected as a property interest just as the plaintiff’s right to commence an action is a valid and protected property interest…. Florida’s statute of limitations, section 95.011, bars all action unless commenced within designated times…. Once an action is barred, a property right to be free from a claim has accrued.”).
In the linked-to-case above a woman (“Michel”) claiming to be the daughter of a man who died intestate filed a petition seeking a blood sample of the decedent for DNA testing, which she claimed would establish he was her father. The decedent’s sister (“Robinson”) objected. The probate judge granted the request for DNA testing to establish paternity,
reasoning that “if there is a DNA sample that could scientifically establish whether or not John Robinson is the father, it would be … an extreme injustice for this not to occur.” The probate court emphasized that it was a court of equity …
One of the hardest lessons you learn over time as a practicing attorney is that just because an outcome seems unfair, doesn’t make it legally wrong. Justice Holmes is said to have once quipped that “This is a court of law, young man, not a court of justice.” And he was right.
But we’re all human (including judges), and the “unfair” consequences of random events beyond anyone’s control (such as, what age you happen to have been in 2009) can be awfully hard to ignore. So can a probate judge’s “equitable” powers be used to get around the law on the books, especially if that law isn’t particularly equitable to the person standing before the judge? Nope. So saith the 3d DCA:
Michel maintains that the probate court sits in equity and must do what is equitable. She argues that because Robinson raised the issue that she is not the decedent’s daughter, she should be given every opportunity to prove the opposite. While we are sympathetic to Michel’s argument, the probate court erred on rehearing when it invoked equity as a basis to ignore the statute of limitations and this court’s precedents of Rose and Dixon. As the Florida Supreme Court has explained:
[W]e cannot agree that courts of equity have any right or power under the law of Florida to issue such order it considers to be in the best interest of ‘social justice’ at the particular moment without regard to established law. This court has no authority to change the law simply because the law seems to us to be inadequate in some particular case.
Flagler v. Flagler, 94 So. 2d 592, 594 (Fla. 1957) (en banc). Where the legislature has provided “a plain and unambiguous statutory procedure … courts are not free to deviate from that process absent express authority.” Oreal v. Steven Kwartin, P.A., 189 So. 3d 964, 967 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016) (quoting Pineda v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 143 So. 3d 1008, 1011 (Fla. 3d DCA 2014)).