Lalli v. Lalli
Annotate this Case
439 U.S. 259 (1978)
U.S. Supreme Court
Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. 259 (1978)
Lalli v. Lalli
Argued October 4, 1978
Decided December 11, 1978
439 U.S. 259
Appellant, assertedly the illegitimate son of Mario Lalli, who died intestate in New York, filed a petition for a compulsory accounting from appellee administratrix of the estate, claiming that he was entitled to inherit from Mario as his child. Appellee opposed the petition, arguing that, even if appellant were Mario's child, he was not a lawful distributee of the estate because he had failed to comply with a New York statutory provision (§ 4-1.2) that, in pertinent part, allows an illegitimate child to inherit from his intestate father only if a court of competent jurisdiction has, during the father's lifetime, entered an order declaring paternity. Appellant contended that his failure to obtain such an order during Mario's lifetime could not bar his inheritance because § 4-1.2 discriminated against him on the basis of his illegitimate birth in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Appellant tendered evidence that he was Mario's child. The Surrogate's Court ruled that appellant was properly excluded as a distributee under § 4-1.2. The New York Court of Appeals affirmed and upheld the constitutionality of the statute.
43 N.Y.2d 65, 371 N.E.2d 481, affirmed.
MR. JUSTICE POWELL, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE and MR. JUSTICE STEWART, concluded that § 4-1.2 does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U. S. 762, distinguished. Pp. 439 U. S. 264-276.
(a) While classifications based on illegitimacy are not subject to "strict scrutiny," they are invalid under the Fourteenth Amendment if they are not substantially related to permissible state interests, Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U. S. 495, 427 U. S. 506; Trimble v. Gordon, supra at 430 U. S. 767. P. 439 U. S. 265.
(b) The Illinois statute invalidated in Trimble (which, in addition to requiring the father's acknowledgment of paternity, required the legitimation of the child through intermarriage of the parents as a precondition to inheritance) eliminated "the possibility of a middle ground between the extremes of complete exclusion [of illegitimates claiming under their fathers' estates] and case by-case determination of paternity." But the single requirement at issue under § 4-1.2 is an evidentiary one; the marital status of the parents is irrelevant. Pp. 439 U. S. 266-267.
(c) The primary goal underlying the challenged aspects of § 4-1.2 is
to provide for the just and orderly disposition of a decedent's property where paternal inheritance by illegitimate children is concerned, an area involving unique and difficult problems of proof. Pp. 439 U. S. 268-271.
(d) Section 4-1.2 represents a carefully considered legislative judgment on how best to "grant to illegitimates, insofar as practicable, rights of inheritance on a par with those enjoyed by legitimate children," while protecting the important state interest in the just and orderly disposition of decedents' estates. Accuracy is enhanced by placing paternity disputes in a judicial forum during the lifetime of the father, which (in addition to permitting a man to defend his reputation against unjust paternity claims) helps to forestall fraudulent assertions of paternity. Estate administration is facilitated, and delay and uncertainty minimized, where the entitlement of an illegitimate child is a matter of judicial record before administration commences. While there may be some instances where § 4-1.2, as is often the case with statutory classifications, will produce inequitable results, the reach of the statute, unlike that involved in Trimble, does not exceed justifiable state objectives. Pp. 439 U. S. 271-274.
MR. JUSTICE BLACKMUN would affirm the judgment below on the basis of Labine v. Vincent, 401 U. S. 532, and, rather than distinguishing Trimble, supra, would overrule that decision. Pp. 439 U. S. 276-277.
POWELL, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and STEWART, J., joined. STEWART, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 439 U. S. 276. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 439 U. S. 276. REHNQUIST, J., filed a statement concurring in the judgment, post, p. 439 U. S. 276. BRENNAN, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, and STEVENS, JJ., joined, post, p. 439 U. S. 277.
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