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In re Estate of Martignacco

November 23, 2004

ESTATE OF ADOLPH L. MARTIGNACCO.


Anoka County District Court File No. P8-02-9758.

Considered and decided by Halbrooks , Presiding Judge, Schumacher , Judge, and Parker , Judge.*fn1

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

1. A non-marital issue may establish parentage for purposes of intestate succession through the probate code by clear and convincing evidence, even after the death of the issue's biological parent.

2. A purely biological relationship may establish parentage for purposes of intestate succession.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Halbrooks, Judge

Affirmed

OPINION

Appellant Rudolph Martignacco, brother of decedent Adolph Martignacco and former personal representative of decedent's estate, challenges the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of respondent Robert Reed, the biological son of decedent, based on the district court's ruling that respondent was decedent's sole heir as a matter of law. Appellant argues that (1) respondent's claim is time-barred by the Parentage Act's statute of limitations; (2) respondent does not meet his burden of "clear and convincing" proof in establishing paternity; and (3) as a matter of public policy, genetic or blood testing should not be dispositive of whether a parent-child relationship exists. Appellant also challenges three prior rulings of the district court, arguing that it abused its discretion by (1) admitting preliminary genetic-testing results; (2) removing appellant and appointing respondent as personal representative of decedent's estate; and (3) denying appellant certain attorney fees incurred in defense of the estate. Because we conclude that the district court did not err in applying the probate code to establish parentage for purposes of intestate succession and did not otherwise abuse its discretion as to the other rulings, we affirm.

FACTS

The material facts in this case are undisputed. Respondent's birth certificate recites that his father is Harold Reed and his mother is Lucille Reed. Harold and Lucille were married at the time of respondent's birth and raised respondent throughout his childhood. Throughout most of respondent's life he believed that Harold Reed was his father; Harold Reed similarly believed that respondent was his son. It was not until 1989, after Harold's death, that respondent first learned from his mother that decedent Adolph Martignacco was actually his biological father. Respondent subsequently met decedent, and the district court found that they "develop[ed] a relationship, [and] spen[t] time together." The extent of their relationship remains disputed. While decedent acknowledged his relationship with respondent, he chose not to introduce his son to his family members. In fact, to almost everyone in decedent's life (including his own estate-planning attorney), respondent's very existence came as a complete surprise. Respondent's mother, Lucille, submitted an affidavit that explained that her son was conceived as a result of an extramarital affair with the decedent while she was married to Harold. She stated that decedent's name was not placed on respondent's birth certificate in order to avoid embarrassment and humiliation. In addition, Lucille explained that the truth surrounding respondent's parentage was limited to "a small group of people" and that "[n]one of [decedent's] brothers were told of [respondent's] birth and its circumstances."

Decedent died intestate in 2002. During his lifetime he had never married, nor sired any children other than respondent. At the time of his death, it was generally believed that decedent was survived only by his three brothers, who expected to inherit decedent's estate. These assumptions changed when respondent attended decedent's funeral.

Soon thereafter, appellant initiated intestate probate proceedings and filed a petition for formal adjudication of intestacy, determination of heirs, and appointment of personal representative. Respondent subsequently filed his objection to the petition and asserted that he was the son of decedent and decedent's sole surviving heir. The district court then appointed appellant as personal representative of decedent's estate and otherwise found that decedent's heirs were "not determined at this time." Respondent filed a petition to determine paternity under Minn. Stat. § 524.2-114(2) (2002) of the probate code, seeking to become an heir to decedent's estate and requesting disinterment of decedent for purposes of conducting genetic testing pursuant to Minn. Stat. § 149A.96 (2002). Respondent submitted an envelope - allegedly handled by decedent - to a testing lab at Orchid GeneScreen for preliminary genetic testing. Both parties were made aware of the genetic-test results, which proved decedent's paternity to a 99.99% degree of certainty.

Thereafter, the district court (1) removed appellant as personal representative of decedent's estate; (2) appointed respondent as personal representative of decedent's estate; and (3) ordered the exhumation of decedent's body for the purposes of further DNA genetic testing. The district court's order was appealed to this court, which denied discretionary review of that portion of the appeal pertaining to exhumation of decedent. Estate of Adolph L. Martignacco, Nos. A03-840, A03-841 (Minn. App. July 14, 2003) (order). The issue of appellant's removal as personal representative was permitted as a matter of right, but specifically reserved by appellant for appeal at this later date.

In accordance with the district court's order, decedent's body was exhumed and genetic testing was performed. Based on those conclusive test results, the parties subsequently stipulated - and the district court found - that respondent is, in fact, the biological child of the decedent.

Before summary-judgment motions were filed with the district court and while the parties were awaiting results of the conclusive genetic testing, the district court considered appellant's motion for interim attorney fees in defending decedent's estate. It granted in part and denied in part appellant's motion for fees, reasoning that "it [was] fair, reasonable, and equitable that the attorneys for [appellant], as [p]ersonal [r]epresentative, be compensated for their services from the inception of the case through May 7, 2003." The district court specifically denied fees after May 7, the date that appellant's counsel was given a copy of the preliminary genetic-test report concluding that respondent was decedent's biological son, because appellant ignored "the existence of credible evidence that [respondent] was the son and an heir of [decedent]."

The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment as to whether respondent was decedent's sole heir. Relying primarily on In re Estate of Palmer, 658 N.W.2d 197 (Minn. 2003), the district court granted respondent's motion for summary judgment and determined that respondent was the decedent's sole heir. This appeal follows.

ISSUES

1. Did the district court err in granting summary judgment to respondent?

2. Did the district court abuse its discretion by admitting preliminary DNA evidence?

3. Did the district court abuse its discretion by sua sponte removing appellant and appointing respondent as personal ...


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