401 U.S. 532 (1971), 5257, Labine v. Vincent

Docket Nº:No. 5257
Citation:401 U.S. 532, 91 S.Ct. 1017, 28 L.Ed.2d 288
Party Name:Labine v. Vincent
Case Date:March 29, 1971
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 532

401 U.S. 532 (1971)

91 S.Ct. 1017, 28 L.Ed.2d 288




No. 5257

United States Supreme Court

March 29, 1971

Argued January 19, 1971



Ezra Vincent died intestate, survived by only collateral relations and an illegitimate daughter, whose guardian (appellant) sued to have her declared Vincent's sole heir. The trial court ruled that, under Louisiana law, the collateral relations took the decedent's property to the exclusion of the daughter, who had been acknowledged by her father but not legitimated. The Louisiana Court of Appeal affirmed. The State Supreme Court denied certiorari. Appellant, relying on Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68, contends that Louisiana's intestate succession laws that bar an illegitimate child from sharing equally with legitimate children in the father's estate constitute an invidious discrimination violative of the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution.

Held: The Louisiana statutory intestate succession scheme is within the State's power to establish rules for the protection and strengthening of family life and for the disposition of property, and, in view of various statutory alternatives, none of which was chosen by Vincent, did not (unlike the situation in Levy) constitute an insurmountable barrier to illegitimate children. Pp. 535-540.

255 La. 480, 231 So.2d 395, affirmed. See: 229 So.2d 449.

BLACK, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and HARLAN, STEWART, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. HARLAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 540. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which DOUGLAS, WHITE, and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 541.

Page 533

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

In this appeal, the guardian (tutrix) of an illegitimate minor child attacks the constitutionality of Louisiana's laws that bar an illegitimate child from sharing equally with legitimates in the estate of their father who had publicly acknowledged the child, but who died without a will. To understand appellant's constitutional arguments and our decision, it is necessary briefly to review the facts giving rise to this dispute. On March 15, 1962, a baby girl, Rita Vincent, was born to Lou Bertha Patterson (now Lou Bertha Labine) in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. On May 10, 1962, Lou Bertha Patterson and Ezra Vincent, as authorized by Louisiana law, jointly executed before a notary a Louisiana State Board of Health form acknowledging that Ezra Vincent was the "natural father" of Rita Vincent.1 This public acknowledgment of parentage did not, under Louisiana law, give the child a legal right to share equally with legitimate children in the parent's estate, but it did give her a right to claim support from her parents or their heirs. The acknowledgment also gave the child the capacity under Louisiana law to be a limited beneficiary under her father's will in the event he left a will naming her, which he did not do here.

Ezra Vincent died intestate, that is, without a will, on September 16, 1968, in Rapides Parish, Louisiana, leaving substantial property within the State, but no will to direct its distribution. Appellant, as the guardian of Rita Vincent, petitioned in state court for the appointment of an administrator for the father's estate, for

Page 534

a declaration that Rita Vincent is the sole heir of Ezra Vincent, and for an order directing the administrator to pay support and maintenance for the child. In the alternative, appellant sought a declaration that the child was entitled to support and maintenance of $150 per month under a Louisiana child support law.2

The administrator of the succession of Ezra Vincent answered the petition claiming that Vincent's relatives were entitled to the whole estate. He relied for the claim upon two articles of the Louisiana Civil Code of 1870: Art. [91 S.Ct. 1019] 206, which provides:

Illegitimate children, though duly acknowledged, cannot claim the rights of legitimate children. . . .

and Art. 919, which provides:

Natural children are called to the inheritance of their natural father, who has duly acknowledged them, when he has left no descendants nor ascendants, nor collateral relations, nor surviving wife, and to the exclusion only of the State.

The court ruled that the relatives of the father were his collateral relations, and that, under Louisiana's laws of intestate succession, took his property to the exclusion of acknowledged, but not legitimated, illegitimate children. The court, therefore, dismissed with costs the guardian mother's petition to recognize the child as an heir. The court also ruled that, in view of Social Security payments of $60 per month and Veterans Administration payments of $40 per month available for the support of the child, the guardian for the child was not entitled to support or maintenance from the succession of Ezra Vincent.3

Page 535

The Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third Circuit, affirmed, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana denied a petition for writ of certiorari. The child's guardian appealed, and we noted probable jurisdiction. 400 U.S. 817 (1970).

In this Court, appellant argues that Louisiana's statutory scheme for intestate succession that bars this illegitimate child from sharing in her father's estate constitutes an invidious discrimination against illegitimate children that cannot stand under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution. Much reliance is placed upon the Court's decisions in Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68 (1968), and Glona v. American Guarantee & Liability Insurance Co., 391 U.S. 73 (1968). For the reasons set out below, we find appellant's reliance on those cases misplaced, and we decline to extend the rationale of those cases where it does not apply. Accordingly, we affirm the decision below.

In Levy, the Court held that Louisiana could not, consistently with the Equal Protection Clause, bar an illegitimate child from recovering for the wrongful death of its mother when such recoveries by legitimate children were authorized. The cause of action alleged in Levy was in tort. It was undisputed that Louisiana had created a statutory tort4 and had provided for the survival of the deceased's cause of action,5 so that a large class of persons injured by the tort could recover damages in compensation for their injury. Under those circumstances, the Court held that the State could not totally exclude from

Page 536

the class of potential plaintiffs illegitimate children who were unquestionably injured by the tort that took their mother's life. Levy did not say, and cannot fairly be read to say, that a State can never treat an illegitimate child differently from legitimate offspring.6

[91 S.Ct. 1020] The people of Louisiana, through their legislature, have carefully regulated many of the property rights incident to family life. Louisiana law prescribes certain formalities requisite to the contracting of marriage.7 Once marriage is contracted there, husbands have obligations to their wives.8 Fathers have obligations to their children.9 Should the children prosper while the parents fall upon hard times, children have a statutory obligation to support their parents.10 To further strengthen and preserve family ties, Louisiana regulates the disposition of property upon the death of a family man. The surviving spouse is entitled to an interest in the deceased spouse's estate.11 Legitimate children have a right of forced heirship in their father's estate, and can even retrieve property transferred by their father during his lifetime in reduction of their rightful interests.12

Page 537

Louisiana also has a complex set of rules regarding the rights of illegitimate children. Children born out of wedlock and who are never acknowledged by their parents apparently have no right to take property by intestate succession from their father's estate. In some instances, their father may not even bequeath property to them by will.13 Illegitimate children acknowledged by their fathers are "natural children." Natural children can take from their father by intestate succession "to the exclusion only of the State." They may be bequeathed property by their father only to the extent of either one-third or one-fourth of his estate, and then only if their father is not survived by legitimate children or their heirs.14 Finally, children born out of wedlock can be legitimated or adopted, in which case they may take by intestate succession or by will as any other child.

These rules for intestate succession may or may not reflect the intent of particular parents. Many will think that it is unfortunate that the rules are so rigid. Others will think differently. But the choices reflected by the intestate succession statute are choices which it is within the power of the State to make. The Federal Constitution does not give this Court the power to overturn the State's choice under the guise of constitutional interpretation because the Justices of this Court believe that they can provide better rules. Of course, it may be said that the rules adopted by the Louisiana Legislature "discriminate" against illegitimates. But the rules also discriminate against collateral relations, as opposed to ascendants, and against ascendants, as opposed to descendants. Other rules determining property rights

Page 538

based on family status also "discriminate" in favor of wives and against "concubines."15 The dissent attempts to distinguish these other "discriminations" on the ground that they have a biological or social basis. There is no biological difference between a wife and a concubine, nor does the Constitution require that there be such a difference before the State may assert its power to protect the wife and her children against the [91 S.Ct. 1021] claims of a concubine and her children. The social...

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