In the Matter of the Charles H. Stix Testamentary Trust dated August 7, 1945, and the Clara F. Stix Testamentary Trust dated April 20, 1943. ( 2015 )


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  •               In the Missouri Court of Appeals
                          Eastern District
                                           DIVISION FOUR
    
    IN THE MATTER OF THE CHARLES H.                  )      No. ED102055
    STIX TESTAMENTARY TRUST DATED                    )
    AUGUST 7, 1945, AND THE CLARA F.                 )      Appeal from the Circuit Court
    STIX TESTAMENTARY TRUST DATED                    )      of the City of St. Louis
    APRIL 20, 1943                                   )      1222-PR00313
                                                     )
                                                     )      Honorable Philip D. Heagney
                                                     )
                                                     )      Filed: April 28, 2015
    
            Charles Grace, Nancy Grace, and William Grace (respectively “Charles,” “Nancy,” and
    
    “William,” and collectively “Appellants”) appeal the probate court’s grant of summary judgment
    
    in favor of Justin Grace (“Respondent”), finding that Respondent was a qualified beneficiary to
    
    two testamentary trusts at issue because he is the descendant of Appellants’ brother Robert
    
    Grace. We affirm.
    
                                          I.      BACKGROUND
    
            Appellants are the grandchildren of Charles Stix (“Charles”) and the great-grandchildren
    
    of Clara Stix (“Clara”), Charles’ mother. The provisions of the last will and testament of both
    
    Clara and Charles created trusts for the benefit of their descendants, effective April 20, 1943 and
    
    August 7, 1945, respectively. Charles’ daughter Ann Stix Grace (“Ann”) was the sole lifetime
    
    beneficiary of both trusts following the death of Clara and Charles and received all income from
    
    each trust.
            Both of the trusts terminated upon Ann’s death on January 27, 2012. The trusts used
    
    slightly different language to dispose of the estate following Ann’s death. Clara’s trust provided
    
    that upon Ann’s death, her trust estate would be divided among Ann’s living children and, if any
    
    of Ann’s children predeceased her, that child’s portion would pass to that child’s descendants.
    
    Charles’ trust provided that upon the death of Ann, the Trustee was to distribute all the money
    
    and other property then constituting the trust estate in equal shares per stirpes to Ann’s living
    
    descendants. Although the trusts used different language, the class of “descendants” is identical
    
    under both trusts, with each descendant taking an equal share. The trust documents do not
    
    otherwise define the term “descendant.”
    
            Ann had five children, including Appellants Charles, Nancy, and William, as well as
    
    Robert Grace and John Grace. Robert and John each predeceased Ann, John without leaving any
    
    children. The issue in this case is whether Respondent is Robert’s descendant within the
    
    meaning of the trusts and therefore entitled to Robert’s share of the proceeds.
    
            On March 28, 1985, Robert married Respondent’s mother, Susan Martin (“Susan”).
    
    Respondent was born in the State of Washington on October 28, 1985, and Respondent’s birth
    
    certificate listed Robert as Respondent’s father. Robert and Susan divorced on October 24,
    
    1988, also in the State of Washington. The Washington court issued a dissolution judgment with
    
    findings of fact and conclusions of law (“the Washington judgment”) stating “the following child
    
    has been born as a result of this marriage: Justin Samuel Grace, born October 28, 1985”
    
    (emphasis added). The judgment granted Susan primary custody of Respondent and Robert
    
    liberal visitation rights.
    
            Robert died on March 6, 1994, over six years after the divorce and when Respondent was
    
    eight years old. Robert’s will left nothing directly to Respondent. Instead, Respondent asserted
    
    
    
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    a claim to an award in lieu of homestead under Washington law, to which was Robert’s estate
    
    opposed. In settling that claim, Susan and Respondent’s guardian ad litem agreed to
    
    acknowledge that Respondent was not Robert’s biological child despite being born during Robert
    
    and Susan’s marriage.
    
            On Ann’s death, Bank of America, N.A. as trustee for both Charles’ and Clara’s trusts
    
    filed a petition for declaration of rights and instructions for final distribution with the probate
    
    court. Specifically, the petition sought instructions as to whether Respondent was a qualified
    
    beneficiary as Robert’s descendant. Appellants and Respondent filed cross-motions for
    
    summary judgment. The probate court denied Appellants’ motion and granted Respondent’s
    
    motion, finding that the Washington judgment established Respondent was a descendant within
    
    the meaning of the trust documents, and the Washington judgment collaterally estopped
    
    Appellants from relitigating Respondent’s parentage. This appeal followed.
    
                                               II.      DISCUSSION
    
            Appellants bring two points on appeal. In their first point, Appellants assert the probate
    
    court erred in granting summary judgment in favor of Respondent because Respondent is not a
    
    “descendant” within the meaning of the trust documents. In their second point, Appellants
    
    contend the probate court erred granting summary judgment in favor of Respondent because the
    
    Washington judgment should not collaterally estop their challenge to Respondent’s paternity.
    
    Because the first point is dispositive, we need not consider Appellants’ second point.1
    
    A.      Standard of review
    
            Summary judgment is reviewed essentially de novo and affirmed only where there are no
    
    genuine issues of material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. ITT
    
    
    1
      We may affirm a trial court's grant of summary judgment on any ground raised in the motion and supported by the
    record. Clark v. Kinsey, 
    405 S.W.3d 551
    , 553 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013).
    
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    Commercial Finance Corp. v. Mid-America Marine Supply Corp., 
    854 S.W.2d 371
    , 376 (Mo.
    
    banc 1993). A defendant may establish summary judgment is appropriate by showing, (1) facts
    
    negating any one of the plaintiff’s elements necessary for judgment; (2) that the plaintiff has not
    
    produced evidence sufficient for the finder of fact to find the existence of one of the plaintiff’s
    
    elements; or (3) facts necessary to support a properly pleaded affirmative defense. Roberts v.
    
    BJC Health System, 
    391 S.W.3d 433
    , 437 (Mo. banc 2013). We review the record in the light
    
    most favorable to the party against whom judgment was entered. Id.
    
    B.     Respondent’s status as a descendant
    
           In their first point, Appellants argue that the probate court erred in granting summary
    
    judgment in favor of Respondent because Respondent is not a “descendant” within the meaning
    
    of the trust documents. Specifically, Appellants assert that DNA evidence demonstrates that
    
    Respondent is not the biological son of Robert and was therefore not intended to be considered
    
    Ann’s descendant under the language of Charles’ and Clara’s trusts. We disagree.
    
           Testators may dispose of their property to whomever and in whatever manner they desire.
    
    Sweeney v. Eaton, 
    486 S.W.2d 453
    , 456 (Mo. 1972). If the testator is shown to have
    
    testamentary capacity, she “has the right to dispose of her property according to her own way of
    
    thinking, and it is not for courts or juries to make a will or codicil for her.” Dorsey v. Dorsey,
    
    
    156 S.W.3d 442
    , 446 (Mo. App. E.D. 2005) (quotations omitted). Here, Charles and Clara
    
    decided to leave contingent remainder interests in their testamentary trusts to a class they defined
    
    as “descendants,” and they are presumed to have understood and intended the legal effect of that
    
    disposition. Easter v. Ochs, 
    837 S.W.2d 516
    , 517 (Mo. banc 1992). The trust documents did not
    
    otherwise define the term “descendant.”
    
    
    
    
                                                      4
            It has long been the law of this state that a child born during a marriage is legally
    
    presumed to be the husband’s offspring for all purposes, including matters of probate and
    
    inheritance. The Missouri Supreme Court outlined this rule in Bower v. Graham, 
    225 S.W. 978
    
    (Mo. 1920), a case factually similar to the circumstances here. In Bower, the child in question
    
    was conceived while the mother was married to one man, but born five months after she
    
    divorced and married another. Id. at 978-79. On the second husband’s death, his siblings
    
    challenged the child’s paternity and right to inherit from his estate. Id. at 978. The Supreme
    
    Court held that the second husband was legally the child’s father, and she was entitled to inherit
    
    from his estate. Id. at 978-80. The Court reasoned that the common law presumes a child born
    
    during a marriage to be the child of the husband. Id. at 980. Further, the second husband
    
    acknowledged paternity during his lifetime, and that acknowledgment was binding on his
    
    siblings in the probate proceeding. Id.
    
            The facts are substantially similar here. Respondent was born during Robert’s marriage
    
    to Susan. Under both Missouri and Washington law, Robert is therefore presumed to be
    
    Respondent’s father for all purposes. See section 210.841.1 RSMo Supp. 19882 (“The judgment
    
    or order of the court determining the existence or nonexistence of the parent and child
    
    relationship is determinative for all purposes”); Miller v. Sybouts, 
    645 P.2d 1082
    , 1084 (Wash.
    
    1982) (citing RCW 26.26.040,3 providing a man is presumed to be natural father of a child if he
    
    and the child’s natural mother are married when the child is born).4 Further, the Washington
    
    
    2
      This version of the statute was in effect at the time of Robert and Susan’s divorce and the Washington judgment
    determining Respondent was born as a result of the marriage. This section has been subsequently amended but this
    language remains unchanged. All further references to section 210.841.1 are to RSMo Supp. 1988.
    3
      This section was in effect at the time of Robert and Susan’s divorce and the Washington judgment determining
    Respondent was born as a result of the marriage. This section has been subsequently repealed and replaced by the
    current version of the Washington parentage statute, RCW 26.26.116, but this legislative change is not relevant to
    the facts here.
    4
      Because the law of Missouri and Washington is identical on this issue, we need not decide the choice of law
    problem.
    
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    court adjudicated the issue of Respondent’s paternity and the Washington judgment determined
    
    him to be Robert’s son. Also, no one formally challenged that paternity determination at the
    
    time it was made or in any of the years following until Robert’s death over six years later. See
    
    Matter of Burley, 
    658 P.2d 8
    , 13 (Wash. Ct. App. 1983) (citing RCW 26.26.060(1)(b),5 requiring
    
    that challenges to determine the non-existence of a father-child relationship be brought within a
    
    reasonable time).
    
            Appellants admit the Washington judgment is final and determinative and do not dispute
    
    Robert was legally Respondent’s father for purposes of custody and child support. However,
    
    they dispute that it is binding on them for probate purposes. This argument must fail. Under
    
    Bower, because Robert acknowledged paternity during his lifetime on Respondent’s birth
    
    certificate and in the divorce proceeding, that acknowledgment is binding on other parties with
    
    property interests in his estate, just as it was on the decedent’s siblings in Bower. Bower has
    
    been repeatedly cited favorably by subsequent Missouri opinions, including those contemporary
    
    to the execution of Clara’s and Charles’ trust documents. See Bernheimer v. First Nat. Bank of
    
    Kansas City, 
    225 S.W.2d 745
    , 751 (Mo. 1949); Boudinier v. Boudinier, 
    203 S.W.2d 89
    , 97 (Mo.
    
    App. 1947). Testators are presumed to know and understand the meaning and effect of the terms
    
    used in their probate documents as defined under Missouri law. Easter, 837 S.W.2d at 517.
    
    “Descendant” as it was used in the trust documents therefore includes a child born in
    
    Respondent’s circumstances.
    
            The litigation surrounding Robert’s estate and the subsequent settlement do not change
    
    this outcome. Robert died in 1994, over six years after the divorce and when Respondent was
    
    
    5
      This section was in effect at the time of Robert and Susan’s divorce and the Washington judgment determining
    Respondent was born as a result of the marriage. This section has been subsequently repealed and replaced by the
    current statute of limitations, RCW 26.26.530(1), requiring a parentage action to be commenced within four years of
    the birth of the child.
    
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    eight years old. In settling Respondent’s claim to an award in lieu of homestead, Susan and
    
    Respondent’s guardian ad litem agreed to acknowledge in the settlement that Respondent was
    
    not Robert’s biological child despite being born during the marriage. This acknowledgment does
    
    not negate the earlier parentage adjudication in the Washington judgment. The litigation
    
    surrounding Robert’s estate was not an adjudication of Respondent’s parentage and no court
    
    except the Washington court ruled on the issue.
    
           The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed a similar set of facts in In re Trust Created by
    
    Agreement Dated Dec. 20, 1961, 
    765 A.2d 746
     (N.J. 2001). In that case, several beneficiaries
    
    challenged the paternity of another beneficiary, Jenia, thereby contesting her status as a
    
    beneficiary. Id. at 749, 751. Jenia was born during her purported father’s marriage to her
    
    mother. Id. at 749. Upon their divorce, the purported father signed an acknowledgment that
    
    Jenia was his daughter, and the trial court made a finding of fact that Jenia was “born of the
    
    marriage.” Id. at 750. Later, in litigation regarding an unrelated trust, the purported father
    
    testified he did not consider Jenia to be his child, but that apparent disavowal was not
    
    adjudicated by any court. Id. The New Jersey Supreme Court held no third party could
    
    collaterally attack Jenia’s parentage as previously determined by the divorce proceeding. Id. at
    
    759. It reasoned that the New Jersey legislature chose language providing for paternity
    
    judgments to be “determinative for all purposes.” Id. at 756. Further, parentage determinations
    
    are meant to be final, and subsequent claims or intimation of third parties, including the
    
    purported father himself, are insufficient to overcome the prior judgment. Id. at 755-56.
    
           We find the reasoning of the New Jersey Supreme Court to be persuasive. The
    
    Washington judgment making a finding of fact that Respondent was “born as a result of [Robert
    
    and Susan’s] marriage was a final adjudication of Respondent’s parentage for all purposes.” Just
    
    
    
                                                      7
    as the New Jersey statute, the Missouri legislature used language mandating that judgments
    
    making findings on the issue of paternity are “determinative for all purposes.” Section
    
    210.841.1. Therefore, statements made by the parties in subsequent, unrelated litigation, on
    
    issues not adjudicated by the later court, cannot overcome the finality of the original parentage
    
    determination.
    
           Finally, we address Appellants’ claim that their Due Process rights were infringed, in that
    
    they did not have the opportunity to participate in the original litigation of Respondent’s
    
    parentage and their property interests were affected. On this issue, we again find the reasoning
    
    of the New Jersey Supreme Court in In re Trust to be persuasive: “We note that the purported
    
    economic right to become eligible for an unspecified share of trust proceeds occupies a lower
    
    place in the hierarchy of rights as compared to a putative father's right to the parent-child
    
    relationship.” In re Trust, 765 A.2d at 759. Robert claimed paternity on Respondent’s birth
    
    certificate and he again claimed paternity at the time of his divorce. His right to assert paternity
    
    over his legal child overcomes any right to a slightly larger trust benefit Appellants may have.
    
    Therefore, Appellants’ Due Process claim must fail.
    
           Respondent is Robert’s legal child, both by presumption and as adjudicated by the
    
    Washington court. Appellants cannot relitigate the matter decades later. The probate court did
    
    not err in granting summary judgment in favor of Respondent and finding he is a “descendant”
    
    within the meaning of the trust documents. Point one is denied.
    
    
    
    
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                                       III.   CONCLUSION
    
           The probate court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of Respondent is affirmed.
    
    
    
    
                                                      ROBERT M. CLAYTON III, Judge
    
    Roy L. Richter, P.J., and
    Robert G. Dowd, J., concur.
    
    
    
    
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