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Wingate v. Estate of Ryan

May 19, 1997

JOANNE WINGATE AND SALVATORE ERIC PIRRI, A MINOR, BY HIS GUARDIAN AND NATURAL MOTHER, JOANNE WINGATE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
ESTATE OF JOHN J. RYAN AND HELEN THOMAS, ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF JOHN J. RYAN, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at: 290 N.J. Super. 463 (1996).

The opinion of the Court was delivered by Coleman, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, Pollock, O'hern, Garibaldi and Stein join in Justice Coleman's opinion.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coleman

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

Joanne Wingate, et al. v. Estate of John J. Ryan (A-83-96)

Argued February 4, 1997 -- Decided May 19, 1997

Coleman, J., writing for a unanimous Court.

The issue raised in this appeal is whether the twenty-three-year limitations period found in N.J.S.A. 9:17-45(b) of the New Jersey Parentage Act applies to an intestacy action filed by a thirty-one-year-old claimant to prove parentship and heirship under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-10 of the Administration of Estates -Decedents and Others Act (commonly referred to as the Probate Code).

Joanne Wingate was born on December 15, 1963. Her mother, Rachel M. Parsio, was married to Willard Wingate at the time of Joanne's birth. Parsio and Willard divorced in 1970. Willard Wingate died in 1988. John J. Ryan died intestate on February 6, 1995. Until just before Ryan's death, Joanne believed that Willard Wingate was her natural father. However, ten days prior to Ryan's death, Parsio told Joanne that Ryan was her natural father.

Ryan had a close relationship with Parsio and Joanne. He purchased gifts for Joanne on holidays and birthdays and paid for substantial expenses, such as Joanne's braces and her wedding gown. According to Parsio, Ryan would not publicly acknowledge that he was Joanne's natural father because of the embarrassment that revelation would cause, particularly in light of Ryan's Catholic faith. Parsio claims that she did not reveal Ryan's paternity because of his threats to "cut off ties," including financial support, to Parsio and Joanne.

On February 7, 1995, Joanne filed a complaint in Chancery Division, Family Part, under the Probate Code to establish that she and her son are Ryan's heirs. Court ordered blood samples of decedent revealed that Ryan was in fact Joanne's natural father. His estate has not contested that Conclusion.

Joanne filed an amended complaint on February 17, 1995, adding Helen Thomas, both individually and as Ryan's sister and administratrix of his estate. The Family Part granted summary judgment to the estate and Thomas dismissing the complaint, reasoning that Joanne had failed to comply with the twenty-three-year limitations period under the Parentage Act by not filing the claim by her twenty-third birthday. On Joanne's motion for reconsideration, the court vacated its summary judgment and transferred the matter to the Probate Part.

The Appellate Division granted the estate's motion for leave to appeal and stayed further proceedings in the Probate Part pending the outcome of the appeal. The Appellate Division reversed the trial court's denial of the estate's motion for summary judgment, holding that the twenty-three-year limitations period in the Parentage Act applied to Joanne Wingate's claim.

The Supreme Court granted Joanne Wingate's petition for certification.

HELD :

The twenty-three-year limitations period under the New Jersey Parentage Act does not apply to claims filed under the Probate Code.

1. When the Probate Code was modified in 1982, New Jersey had not yet adopted a Parentage Act. However, in 1983, the Parentage Act was adopted, creating inconsistent methods and standards of proof for establishing parentage under New Jersey's Probate Code and Parentage Act. The Law Revision Commission was given the responsibility of attempting to reconcile the conflicting methods and standards of proof in the two Acts. The Commission recommended that the Legislature amend the Probate Code to reflect New Jersey's adoption of the Parentage Act in 1983, and to allow children born out of wedlock to prove paternity for hardship purposes by using the more permissive standards of the Parentage Act. The Legislature followed the Commission's recommendation in 1991 by amending N.J.S.A. 3B:5-10 to permit parentage to be established as provided under the Parentage Act. (pp. 4-10)

2. The parties disagree on whether Joanne's claim is time-barred. Because different interpretations of the statutes exist, the Court must ascertain and effectuate the Legislature's intent. The legislative history demonstrates an intent to change N.J.S.A. 3B:5-10 of the Probate Code to create the same burden of proof existing under the Parentage Act. Based on the Senate Committee's Statement and the recommendations of the Law Revision Commission, it is clear that the Legislature intended the 1991 amendment to N.J.S.A. 3B:5-10 to amend only the standard of proof. (pp. 10-14)

3. The Parentage Act and the Probate Code are independent statutes designed to address different primary rights. The Parentage Act's purpose is to establish the legal relationship between a child and that child's natural or adoptive parents. On the other hand, the purpose of the Probate Code is to determine who is entitled to a decedent's real and personal property. These different purposes serve to explain why the Legislature contemplated different periods of limitations for filing claims under those statutes. (pp. 14-15)

4. In contrast to children who file support claims, which accrue on the date of the child's birth, potential heirs have no right to share in an estate until the death of the decedent. The purpose of the 1991 amendment was to make it easier, not harder or impossible, for persons born out of wedlock to establish heirship. Absent some express contrary indication, it is not likely that the Legislature would reduce the limitations period for filing heirship claims. Thus, the Legislature did not intend its 1991 amendment to change the Probate Code's limitation on when claims can be filed thereunder for determination of heirship. (pp. 15-18)

5. The Appellate Division reasoned that the twenty-three-year period of repose should be imposed in order to guard against spurious claims. That reasoning is rejected because the need to prevent fraudulent claims has been substantially alleviated by the scientific developments in blood testing used to determine proof of parentage. (pp. 19-21)

6. N.J.S.A. 3B:23-19 controls because the 1991 amendment to N.J.S.A. 3B:5-10 did not change the Probate Code's statute of limitations. That statute allows an out-of-wedlock child of a deceased parent to file an heirship claim with the personal representative of the decedent's estate within the time the court deems reasonable for the filing of claims. Joanne Wingate filed her claim within a reasonable time -- one day after the death of John Ryan. (pp. 22)

Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Chancery Division, Probate Part to dispose of the complaint on the merits.

CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, POLLOCK, O'HERN, GARIBALDI and STEIN join in JUSTICE COLEMAN'S opinion.

The opinion of the Court was delivered by

COLEMAN, J.

The issue raised in this appeal is whether the twenty-three year limitations period found in N.J.S.A. 9:17-45(b) of the New Jersey Parentage Act ("Parentage Act"), codified at N.J.S.A. 9:17-38 to -59, applies to an intestacy action filed by a thirty-one-year-old claimant to prove parentage and heirship under N.J.S.A. 3B:5-10 of the Administration of Estates--Decedents and Others Act. That statute, commonly referred to as the Probate Code, is codified at N.J.S.A. 3B:1-1 to 3B:29-1. In 1991, the Legislature amended section 5-10 of the Probate Code to provide that a parent and child relationship "may be established as provided by the 'New Jersey Parentage Act,'" by persons born out of wedlock for purposes of proving heirship. L. 1991, c. 22, § 1.

Plaintiff Joanne Wingate filed a complaint under the Probate Code to establish that she and her son are heirs of John L. Ryan.

The trial court denied defendants' motion for summary judgment to dismiss plaintiff's complaint for failure to file the claim by her twenty-third birthday. On defendants' appeal, the Appellate Division reversed in a published opinion, holding that the twenty-three-year limitations period in the Parentage Act, N.J.S.A. 9:17-45(b), applied to plaintiff's claim. 290 N.J. Super. 463 (1996). We granted plaintiff's petition for certification, 146 N.J. 496 (1996), and now ...


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