In re Interest of Dart, 10-21-00142-CV

CourtCourt of Appeals of Texas
Writing for the CourtSTEVE SMITH, Justice
Citation648 S.W.3d 652
Parties In the INTEREST OF Justin G. DART, an Adult Child
Docket Number10-21-00142-CV
Decision Date22 June 2022

648 S.W.3d 652

In the INTEREST OF Justin G. DART, an Adult Child

No. 10-21-00142-CV

Court of Appeals of Texas, Waco.

Opinion delivered and filed June 22, 2022


Attorney(s) for Appellant/Relator: Maeghan Whitehead, Casey L. Griffith & Michael Barbee, Griffith Barbee PLLC, Dallas, TX, Lane E. Rugeley, Rugeley & Associates PC, Cleburne, TX.

Attorney(s) for Appellees/Respondent: Blake O. Spencer, Zachary Johnson & R. Kevin Spencer, Spencer Johnson & Harvell PLLC, Dallas, TX.

Before Chief Justice Gray, Justice Johnson, and Justice Smith

STEVE SMITH, Justice

648 S.W.3d 653

Can a petition to adjudicate parentage be brought after the death of the putative father? That is the question posed in this appeal. Specifically, appellant, Katrina Ahrens, contends that the trial court erred when it adjudicated the parentage of appellee, Justin Gerald Dart, even though the putative father, Lorne Ahrens, had died more than four years prior to the filing of the petition. Because we conclude that the trial court lacked personal jurisdiction over Lorne, we conclude that Dart cannot maintain this petition to adjudicate parentage brought after Lorne's death. Accordingly, we reverse and render.

Background

Dart, who is an adult, filed suit against his mother Melody Dart, Lorne, and Katrina as independent executor of Lorne's estate. Dart requested that the trial court adjudicate and declare that he is: (1) the biological son of Lorne; and (2) entitled to all the legal rights and privileges of a surviving child of Lorne.1 Dart and Katrina filed competing motions for summary judgment. Katrina, in particular, asserted that the trial court must dismiss Dart's lawsuit to adjudicate parentage because such a suit cannot be brought after the death of the putative father. After a hearing and review of the summary-judgment motions and responses thereto, the trial court denied both summary-judgment motions.

This matter proceeded to a bench trial. Katrina moved for a judgment in her favor on the basis that the plain language of Chapter 160 of the Texas Family Code provides that suits to adjudicate parentage do not survive the death of the putative father. The trial court disagreed. At the conclusion of the bench trial, the trial court signed a judgment adjudicating Lorne Ahrens "was and is the biological father of JUSTIN GERALD DART, pursuant to Chapter 160 of the Texas Family Code." This appeal followed.

Analysis

In her first issue, Katrina contends that the trial court's judgment should be vacated because Dart failed to join Lorne as a necessary party to the lawsuit under section 160.603 of the Texas Family Code. See TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. § 160.603. In her second issue, Katrina asserts that because Lorne was deceased prior to the commencement of this lawsuit, the trial court did not acquire personal jurisdiction over Lorne. See id. § 160.604. As such, Katrina argues that the trial court's judgment should be vacated.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

We review a trial court's order in a proceeding to adjudicate parentage for an abuse of discretion. Stamper v. Knox , 254 S.W.3d 537, 542 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2008, no pet.) (citing Worford v. Stamper , 801 S.W.2d 108, 109 (Tex. 1990) (per curiam) ). A trial court abuses its discretion when it acts "without reference to any guiding rules or principles; in other words, whether the act was arbitrary or unreasonable." Worford , 801 S.W.2d at 109. The fact that a trial court may decide a matter within its discretionary authority in a different manner from an appellate court in a similar circumstance does not demonstrate an abuse of discretion.

648 S.W.3d 654

In re C.A.M.M. , 243 S.W.3d 211, 214-15 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2007, pet. denied). A trial court does not abuse its discretion as long as some evidence of a substantive and probative character exists to support the trial court's decision. Id. at 215.

DISCUSSION

Section 160.603 of the Texas Family Code details the necessary parties to a proceeding to adjudicate parentage:

The following individuals must be joined as parties in a proceeding to adjudicate parentage:

(1) The mother of the child; and

(2) A man whose paternity of the child is to be adjudicated.

TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. § 160.603. When used in a statute, the term "must" creates or recognizes a condition precedent. TEX. GOV'T CODE ANN. § 311.016(3). Furthermore, Texas courts have generally interpreted "must" as mandatory, creating a duty or obligation. See Helena Chem. Co. v. Wilkins , 47 S.W.3d 486, 493 (Tex. 2001). However, even if a statutory requirement is mandatory, this does not mean that compliance is necessarily jurisdictional. Id. at 494 ; see Albertson's, Inc. v. Sinclair , 984 S.W.2d 958, 961 (Tex. 1999) ; see also A.C. v. Tex. Dep't of Family & Protective Servs. , 577 S.W.3d 689, 696-97 (Tex. App.—Austin 2019, pet. denied) (characterizing section 160.603 of the Texas Family Code as a joinder provision that is not jurisdictional in nature).

Despite the fact that section 160.603 of the Texas Family Code is a joinder provision that is not jurisdictional, section 160.604 of the Texas Family Code is jurisdictional. See TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. § 160.604. Specifically, section 160.604(a) provides that: "An individual may not be adjudicated to be a parent unless the court has personal jurisdiction over the individual." Id. § 160.604(a) ; see, e.g., Frazer v. Hall , No. 01-11-00505-CV, 2012 WL 2159271, at *2, 2012 Tex. App. LEXIS 4698, at *5 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] June 14, 2012, no pet.) (mem. op.) ("The Act mandates that an individual may not be adjudicated a parent unless the court has personal jurisdiction over the individual."). Establishing personal jurisdiction over a defendant requires valid service of...

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