In May, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia ruled in the case of Hall v. Hall. What proceeded bears direct application on future estate cases in West Virginia in which parental rights have been terminated.
First though, let’s back up and discuss the specifics of this case. In the case of Hall v. Hall, Michael Hall died without a will. In a typical instance, his estate would have automatically fallen first to a spouse, and in the case of no spouse, then to his children. But, of course, we wouldn’t be writing about the case if it were typical.
At the time of his death, Hall was unmarried and had one biological child. However, in 2008, he willingly terminated his parental rights after the Department of Health and Human Services filed a petition of abuse and neglect against him. Hall was criminally charged for the abuse and served a lengthy prison sentence. Unfortunately, that fact was irrelevant to whether his child was entitled to inheritance.
When Hall’s child reached the age of majority, she petitioned the court for rights to her father’s estate. The defendants, Hall’s laughing heirs, argued that because parental rights had been terminated so too had the child’s rights to inheritance. A court ruled in favor of the defendants in 2017. Upon appeal, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the defendants thereby cutting off the child’s right to inheritance.
As quoted from court documents:
Indeed, numerous states have adopted legislation allowing a child to retain the right to inherit from a parent whose parental rights have been terminated. Unfortunately, West Virginia is not among those states that have enacted specific legislation on this topic.
In a podcast review of the case, Andy DeMaio of Leimberg Information Services said, “The dissenters [justices who voted against the ruling] pointed to the strong public policies underlying the child welfare system. Those policies are designed to protect not penalize children who are abused or neglected.”
In the end, Hall v. Hall is an example of the possibility of an unfortunate, and potentially damaging, outcome when a will isn’t present to direct the wishes of the deceased.
“This was a harsh result that could have been avoided had this father signed a will expressing how he wished his assets to pass upon his death,” concluded John Hussell of Wooton, Davis, Hussell & Ellis, LLC.