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Domestic Relations – Inheritance – Illegitimacy

In re Williams. (Lawyers Weekly No. 10-07-1091, 8 pp.) (Barbara Jackson, J.) Appealed from Wake County Superior Court. (Henry W. Hight Jr., J.) N.C. App. Click here for the full text of the opinion.

Holding: Even when a father is ordered to pay child support and arrested for criminal nonsupport of his Illegitimate children, those children  cannot later inherit from their father’s estate.


In 2006 Ardies Williams died intestate. His wife applied for letters of administration and asserted that she was the only person entitled to share in the estate.

Petitioners Watkins and Howard filed objections, contesting Williams’ assertion that she was the only heir. The three asserted that they were entitled to a portion of the estate as decedent’s children. Each child had visited him at his home before his death while his wife was present.

At a hearing before the clerk of court, petitioners introduced evidence designed to support their claim of paternity or legitimacy. They included a 1961 arrest warrant charging decedent with criminal non-support for petitioners Watkins and Howard and receipts from Domestic Relations Court for payments made to that court from decedent payable to petitioners’ mother. Petitioners also produced a power-of-attorney signed by decedent that named Watkins his attorney-in-fact and evidence of an insurance policy that named her as his daughter.

The clerk issued an order finding that Watkin’s birth certificate listed decedent as her father and she was born illegitimate, Howard’s birth certificate omits the father’s name and indicates she was born illegitimate, there is no record of a marriage that would legitimate petitioners, there is no judicial decree indicating that decedent was the father of petitioners, and an acknowledgement of paternity executed by decedent and notarized was never filed in any court.

Based on this evidence, the clerk found that the petitioners were not entitled to inherit from decedent’s estate. Petitioners appealed, and the superior court affirmed the order.


Petitioners argue the trial court erred by failing to find that they are the children of decedent and therefore his heirs. We disagree.

Absent a statute to the contrary, illegitimate children have no right to inherit from their putative fathers. Ways to legitimate children in North Carolina include the father filing a petition in court, marriage of the parents or civil action to establish paternity.

In this case, there was never any action that legitimated the children. Petitioners contend that the arrest warrant charging decedent with nonsupport and receipts showing payments to their mother indicate that paternity was judicially established. Petitioners also presented an affidavit from a former superior court judge who was a solicitor in domestic court at the time of the arrest saying that the court would not have accepted payments in the absence of a court order requiring those payments.

Petitioners attempt to draw the inference that in late 1961 or early 1962 the decedent had been found guilty of criminal nonsupport, which necessarily would have required a finding of paternity. Whether or not this inference is reasonable, our statutes mandate that paternity be finally adjudicated in order for an illegitimate child to inherit from his or her father. Circumstantial evidence and inference cannot satisfy the statutory mandate for legitimation.


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