United States: Appellate Division Analyzes What It Means To "Abandon" A Child "By Willfully Forsaking" Him

Last Updated: January 5 2016
Article by Robert A. Epstein

Family law and estate law are undoubtedly two very personal areas of the law that often cross-over with one another depending on the issues at hand.  In the Matter of the Estate of Michael D. Fisher, II presents us with one of the more tragic factual scenarios where the two worlds intertwine.

These are the facts that you need to know:

  • The parties were married in 1994 and had one child, who was born in 1995.
  • The parties separated in 2001 and mom procured a final restraining order against dad after he tried to move child from school without first telling her.    Dad, under the terms of the FRO, was permitted supervised parenting time with child at dad's psychologist's office, and dad was to undergo a risk assessment and "receive professional domestic violence counseling."
  • Dad neither attended all supervised time with his son or undergo either the risk assessment or counseling.
  • In November 2001, dad filed a motion for unsupervised parenting time.  Mom cross-moved for all time to be supervised until dad completed anger management and the risk assessment.
  • In January 2002, the court temporarily suspended dad's parenting time pending his enrollment of the above-referenced anger management and assessment.
  • In March 2002, the court entered a final judgment of divorce, incorporating the terms of the parties' settlement agreement.  Mom procured sole custody of the child, and dad's parenting time remained suspended until he complied with the terms of the January 2002 Order.
  • During the divorce proceeding, mom presented dad with an offer that, if dad agreed to give up his rights to the child, she would not seek child support.  Dad rejected the offer "out of hand".
  • Dad did not appear for the scheduled risk assessment.  As a result, the parenting time suspension continued.
  • From January 2002 until the child's death in September 2010, dad "never had any legal visitation with his son" and had some phone conversations with him in 2001 and 2002.  He occasionally saw him in public places.
  • Through subsequent litigation, dad, who had moved to Florida and became ill, procured a termination of his child support obligation.  He was obligated to pay substantial arrears that had accrued, but had otherwise paid support throughout the child's life.  He even continued to pay a portion of the support when he was in poor health.  Interestingly, the trial court was critical of dad because he paid support through a wage garnishment even though this was specifically agreed to in the parties' settlement agreement.
  • Dad learned of the child's death from a relative and returned to New Jersey to attend the funeral.  The child died intestate and, with dad's consent, mom was appointed as administratrix and administratrix ad prosequendum (named where a wrongful death suit is to be filed) of the child estate.

Since the child had no spouse or children of his own, the parents were to share equally in his intestate estate under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-4(b).  However, another law that became effective only a year prior to the child's death, N.J.S.A. 3B:5-14.1, provides:

1.  A parent of a decedent shall lose all right to intestate succession in any part of the decedent's estate . . . if:

(1) The parent refused to acknowledge the decedent or abandoned the decedent when the decedent was a minor by willfully forsaking the decedent, failing to care for and keep the control and custody of the decedent so that the decedent was exposed to physical or moral risk without proper and sufficient protection, or failing to care for and keep the control and custody of the decedent so that the decedent was in the care, custody and control of the State at the time of death . . . .

As expected, mom filed a complaint to bar dad from receiving a share of the child's estate under the newly passed law, alleging that dad abandoned the child after the divorce by failing to have any contact with him or pay his full child support obligation.  Dad denied that he abandoned the child.

The trial court granted mom's application despite concluding, "[a]dmittedly, it may not have been [dad's] specific intent or purpose to abandon his son."  In so doing, the court found dad's acts were "unequivocally intentional rather than accidental or involuntary" because it was his choice not to attend supervised parenting time or anger management counseling, as well as not pay child support.

On appeal, the court determined that whether dad "abandoned" the child turned upon an interpretation of the new statute, which provides:

b.  A parent of a decedent shall lose all right to intestate succession in any part of the decedent's estate . . . if:

(1) The parent refused to acknowledge the decedent or abandoned the decedent when the decedent was a minor by willfully forsaking the decedent, failing to care for and keep the control and custody of the decedent so that the decedent was exposed to physical or moral risk without proper and sufficient protection, or failing to care for and keep the control and custody of the decedent so that the decedent was in the care, custody and control of the State at the time of death . . . .

Analyzing the language, the Appellate Division found that a parent may lose his or her right to intestate succession if the parent abandoned the decedent when he or she was a minor by taking any one of the following three specific steps:

  1. willfully forsaking the decedent;
  2. failing to care for and keep the control and custody of the decedent so that the decedent was exposed to physical or moral risk without proper and sufficient protection; OR
  3. failing to care for and keep the control and custody of the decedent so that the decedent was in the care, custody and control of the State at the time of death.

In so finding, the Appellate Division noted that death or serious harm to the child need not occur for the statutory definition of "abandonment" to be fulfilled and that the law was not supposed to be so limiting in its application.

The Court also engaged in a statutory interpretation of the phrase "willfully forsaking", noting that it was inappropriate for the trial court to utilize a dictionary definition of "willfully" when many prior cases had interpreted the phrase under a similar statute.  After engaging in its analysis, the Appellate Court determined:

After carefully reviewing these precedents and distilling them to their essence, we hold that, in order for a court to conclude that a parent has "abandoned" his or her child "by willfully forsaking" him or her under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-14.1(b)(1), the court must find that the parent, through his or her unambiguous and intentional conduct, has clearly manifested a settled purpose to permanently forego all parental duties and relinquish all parental claims to the child.

The burden of proof to be applied?  A "preponderance of the evidence", rather than the more strict "clear and convincing evidence" because the issue merely involved whether a parent may share in a child's financial estate, rather than the actual "best interests" of the child.  This despite will contests often involving the stricter standard.

Following its legal analysis, the Appellate Court found that dad did not "abandon" his son by "willfully forsaking" him even though he did not take actions necessary to enable him to have parenting time with the child after the FRO was procured by mom.  Ultimately, dad did not manifest a settled purpose to "permanently forego all parental duties and relinquish all parental claims to the child."  Dad took repeated steps to restore his relationship with the child, would not agree to mom's offer to terminate his parental rights in exchange for no child support, and paid child support throughout the child's life (the Court noted that simply filing a motion to terminate child support is not evidence of a "settled purpose" to "permanently forego all parental duties and claims to his child" – in fact, dad did not oppose mom's motion to reinstate child support if dad could procure Social Security Disability benefits.)

As a result, the Court concluded that the exception to intestate succession that mom sought to apply here was not appropriate and dad was entitled to share in the child's estate.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Robert A. Epstein
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