News: CJ Exclusives

Court Overturns Abandonment Case

Supreme Court says father's involvement not enough to gain inheritance

Candice Lunsford died in an auto accident on June 30, 1999, just nine days after she turned 18. She did not have a will. Her estate filed a wrongful death suit and was able to collect $100,000 from an insurance company.
The question that state courts have struggled with for six years — and the N.C. Supreme Court settled on April 7 — is how the money should be divided, specifically whether Candice’s father is entitled to half or whether he legally abandoned his daughter.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court overturned the legal definition of abandonment established in a N.C. Court of Appeals ruling in the case.

The facts in the case are not in dispute. Dawn Collins Bean (then Dawn Collins) and Randy Keith Lunsford were married on November 1, 1980 and separated two years later. Candice was born on June 21, 1981. A 1985 divorce decree awarded Collins sole custody of Candice. The court at the time considered the issue of child support, but ultimately did not require Lunsford to pay.

At trial in 1999, Bean testified that Lunsford visited Candice “[n]o more than four or five times” between November 1982 and March 1985, “no[t] at all” between March 1985 and 1990 and “[m]aybe five or six times” between 1990 and 1999. She also said that Lunsford had paid her under $100 towards Candice’s support over the course of her life.

Based upon these facts, a Superior Court judge found that Lunsford had abandoned Candice and was precluded from inheriting from her estate. A majority of a three-judge panel of the N.C. Court of Appeals did not agree, and overturned the ruling. Judge Wanda Bryant dissented, which brought the case before the high court.

The Supreme Court noted that under established case law, a parent that “withholds his presence, his love, his care, the opportunity to display filial affection, and wil[l]fully neglects to lend support and maintenance,” is deemed to have abandoned a child. And the high court found there was adequate evidence that this had in fact happened in this case.

“In the instant case, the trial court’s findings of fact support its conclusion that Lunsford wilfully abandoned the care and maintenance of Candice under the meaning of N.C.G.S. § 31A-2,” wrote Justice Mark Martin for the court. “Even assuming that Candice refused to accept Lunsford’s occasional offers of financial assistance, the trial court could reasonably have concluded that Lunsford’s sporadic contacts with his daughter over a seventeen-year period failed to reflect the degree of ‘presence,’ ’love,’ ’care,’ and ‘opportunity to display filial affection’ that defines non-abandoning parents.”

In general a finding of abandonment would be enough for a parent to be disinherited. An exception exists, however, if they had “been deprived of the custody of his or her child under an order of a court of competent jurisdiction” and had “substantially complied with all orders of the court requiring contribution to the support of the child.” The provision is codified as N.C.G.S. § 31A-2(2).

While the trial court found this section inapplicable to Lunsford because he was never ordered to pay child support, the Court of Appeals had disagreed. It had held that because the court granting the divorce had considered the issue of child support but not ordered any, and Lunsford had complied with that order, the exception applied and he was entitled to inherit.

The Supreme Court explicitly rejected the appeals court’s logic.

“It is well settled that ’[w]here the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, there is no room for judicial construction and the courts must construe the statute using its plain meaning,” wrote Justice Martin. “Here, N.C.G.S. § 31A-2(2) provides that an abandoning parent may inherit from an abandoned child if the parent has ‘substantially complied with all orders of the court requiring contribution to the support of the child.’ [emphasis in decision]. By its express language, therefore, the statutory exception may not be invoked where a court order has not ‘requir[ed]’ the payment of child support.”

And because Lunsford had not been required to pay child support, the Supreme Court found the exception did not apply to him.

“We acknowledge that it would be inequitable to permit a parent who has complied with a child support order to inherit, while disinheriting a parent who has voluntarily supplied the same degree of support… We do not believe, however, that N.C.G.S. § 31A-2 would support such an incongruous result. If a parent voluntarily provides adequate ‘care and maintenance’ for purposes of N.C.G.S. § 31A-2, that parent cannot be said to have abandoned the child in the first instance. As an exception to the general rule of disinheritance, N.C.G.S. § 31A- 2(2) comes into play only when a parent has failed to provide care and support of his or her own volition. As the Court of Appeals correctly noted, the exception provides that a parent should not be penalized for his or her failure to exceed the terms of a judicial child support order. Accordingly, the statute should not be applied to the disadvantage of a parent who voluntarily provides adequate care and support. Such a parent can hardly be deemed in law to have abandoned his or her child.

“Applying these principles to the case at bar, Lunsford is subject to disinheritance and does not qualify to inherit from his deceased child under the statutory exception. Lunsford did not voluntarily provide Candice with an adequate level of care and support and therefore abandoned the child under N.C.G.S. § 31A-2. Because he did not comply with the terms of a court order requiring support to be paid, Lunsford may not invoke the N.C.G.S. § 31A-2(2) exception.”

The case is In re Estate of Lunsford, (362A01-3).