Labine v. Vincent

Decision Date29 March 1971
Docket NumberNo. 5257,5257
Citation91 S.Ct. 1017,28 L.Ed.2d 288,401 U.S. 532
PartiesLou Bertha LABINE, Natural Tutrix of Minor Child, Rita Nell Vincent, Appellant, v. Simon VINCENT, Administrator of the Succession of Ezra Vincent
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

See 402 U.S. 990, 91 S.Ct. 1672.

James J. Cox, Lake Charles, La., for appellant.

James A. Leithead, Lake Charles, La., for appellee.

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 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 maintenace 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. 206, which provides:

'Illegitimate children, though duly acknowledged, can not 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, illegimate 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 Vin- cent. 3 The Louisiana Court of Appeal, Third Circuit, affirmed 229 So.2d 449, and the Supreme Court of Louisiana denied a petition for writ of certiorari, 255 La. 480, 231 So.2d 395. The child's guardian appealed and we noted probable jurisdiction. 400 U.S. 817, 91 S.Ct. 79, 27 L.Ed.2d 44 (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, 88 S.Ct. 1509, 20 L.Ed.2d 436 (1968), and Glona v. American Guarantee & Liability Insurance Co., 391 U.S. 73, 88 S.Ct. 1515, 20 L.Ed.2d 441 (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 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

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 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 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 claims of a concubine and her children. The social difference between a wife and a concubine is analogous to the difference between a legitimate and an illegitimate child. One set of relationships is socially sanctioned, legally recognized, and gives rise to various rights and duties. The other set of relationships is illicit and beyond the recognition of the law. Similarly, the State does not need biological or social reasons for distinguishing between ascendants and descendants. Some of these discriminatory choices are perhaps more closely connected to our conceptions of social justice or the ways in which most dying men wish to dispose of their property than the Louisiana rules governing illegitimate children. It may be possible that some of these choices are more 'rational' than the choices inherent in Louisiana's categories of illegitimates. But the power to make rules to establish, protect, and strengthen family life as well as to regulate the disposition of property left in Louisiana by a man dying there is committed by the Constitution of the United States and the people of Louisiana to the legislature of that State. Absent a specific constitutional guarantee, it is for that legislature not the life-tenured judges of this Court, to select from among possible laws.16 We cannot say that Louisiana's policy provides a perfect or even a desirable solution or the one we would have provided for the...

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