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12/19/96 ESTATE RONADRA J. HICKS v. RONALD J. HICKS

December 19, 1996

IN RE ESTATE OF RONADRA J. HICKS, DECEASED (MARK TWAIN ILLINOIS BANK, ADM'R AND GUARDIAN OF THE ESTATES OF LADONNA AND LADIEA BENDER, MINORS, APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD J. HICKS, APPELLEE).



Chief Justice Bilandic delivered the opinion of the court.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bilandic

CHIEF JUSTICE BILANDIC delivered the opinion of the court:

At issue in this appeal is the constitutionality of section 2-2(d) of the Probate Act (755 ILCS 5/2-2(d) (West 1994)), which provides that the estate of an illegitimate intestate who dies without a surviving spouse or descendants shall be distributed to his or her mother and the mother's children/descendants. The circuit court of St. Clair County entered a judgment finding section 2-2(d) unconstitutional because it permitted only mothers, and not fathers, to inherit by intestate succession from their illegitimate children, and thereby unlawfully discriminated on the basis of gender, in violation of the equal rights provision of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 18). The circuit court also determined that section 2-1 of the Probate Act (755 ILCS 5/2-1 (West 1994)) would control the distribution of the estates of illegitimate decedents. That section, which governs the intestate succession of legitimate decedents, allows both mothers and fathers (and their descendants) to inherit by intestate succession from their legitimate children who die without a surviving spouse or descendants.

FACTS

The decedent, Ronadra J. Hicks, was born on April 10, 1985, and died on January 3, 1994. Shortly after Ronadra's death, her mother, Sandra Williams Bender, filed a petition for letters of administration and determination of heirship in the probate division of the circuit court of St. Clair County. That court entered an order appointing Mark Twain Bank (Bank) as the administrator of Ronadra's estate. The circuit court also entered an order determining heirship pursuant to section 2-2(d) of the Probate Act, identifying as Ronadra's only heirs her mother, Sandra Bender, and her three half-sisters, LaDonna, LaDiea and LaShawn Bender.

The Bank filed an inventory reporting the sole asset of Ronadra's estate to be an account with a balance of $94,148.27. The circuit court subsequently entered a modified order of heirship, distributing 50% of Ronadra's estate to her mother and the remaining 50% in equal shares to her three half-sisters.

Subsequently, Ronald Hicks, Ronadra's biological father, filed a motion to set aside the modified heirship order and the order appointing the Bank as administrator of Ronadra's estate. Hicks' motion alleged that he was named by Ronadra's mother in a petition to establish parentage filed in the circuit court of St. Clair County, and that he appeared before that court on March 3, 1988, and admitted paternity (approximately three years after the child's birth). The circuit court entered an order establishing paternity and ordered Hicks to pay child support. Hicks' motion claimed that he paid support for Ronadra up to the date of her death pursuant to "an order of withholding previously entered." Hicks' motion sought to set aside the heirship order and argued, inter alia, that "the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy, as it pertains to Ronald Hicks as father of the deceased, [is] unconstitutional." The motion argued that Hicks should be included among the decedent's heirs at law. The circuit court granted Hick's motion, finding section 2-2(d) of the Probate Act (755 ILCS 5/2-2(d) (West 1994)) violative of article I, section 18, of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 18). The circuit court declared Hicks an heir of the decedent but denied further relief.

The trial court subsequently modified its order to find that, having declared section 2-2(d) unconstitutional, section 2-1 of the Probate Act (755 ILCS 5/2-1 (West 1994)) would control the distribution of the estates of illegitimate decedents. Section 2-1 provides that the estate of a legitimate intestate who dies without a surviving spouse or decedent shall be distributed to the decedent's parents and the parents' other descendants, in equal shares. Pursuant to this provision, the circuit court entered an order finding that Ronadra's heirs at law included, not only her mother and her mother's three surviving children, but also her biological father and his two children, Rochelle Jeanette Hicks and Ronyall J'nae Hicks. The trial court ordered that Ronadra's estate be distributed in equal shares to each of Ronadra's seven heirs.

The trial court subsequently granted the Bank authority to appeal its order, and held that the costs incurred in such an appeal would be paid by the decedent's estate. The Bank's appeal was brought directly to this court pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 302 (134 Ill. 2d R. 302). Hicks filed a cross-appeal, claiming that the trial court erred in permitting the Bank to appeal the court's determination of heirship at the expense of the estate.

ANALYSIS

I. Constitutionality

We first address the trial court's order declaring section 2-2(d) of the Probate Act unconstitutional. The trial court found section 2-2(d) unconstitutional on the ground that it created a sex-based classification that could not withstand strict scrutiny. Before reviewing the propriety of that finding, we briefly discuss the standard under which the statute is reviewed.

Prior to ratification of the 1970 Illinois Constitution, legislative enactments that classified on the basis of sex, like most legislative classifications, were reviewed under the more lenient, rational basis standard of judicial review. See, e.g., Jacobson v. Lenhart, 30 Ill. 2d 225, 227, 195 N.E.2d 638 (1964); Henson v. City of Chicago, 415 Ill. 564, 114 N.E.2d 778 (1953). Article I, section 18, of the 1970 Constitution, however, specifically bars discrimination on the basis of sex. Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 18. That constitutional provision states:

"The equal protection of the laws shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex by the State or its units of local government and school districts."

In People v. Ellis, 57 Ill. 2d 127, 311 N.E.2d 98 (1974), our court found that this constitutional provision was intended to supplement and expand the guarantees of the equal protection provision of the bill of rights. The Ellis court determined that "a classification based on sex is a 'suspect classification' which, to be held valid, must withstand 'strict judicial scrutiny.' " Ellis, 57 Ill. 2d at 132-33; see also Phelps v. Bing, 58 Ill. 2d 32, 35, 316 N.E.2d 775 (1974). Under the strict scrutiny standard of review, a statute is not entitled to a presumption of constitutionality. Rather, the statute may be upheld only if the means employed by the legislature to achieve the stated goal were necessary to advance a compelling state interest. Fumarolo v. Chicago Board of Education, 142 Ill. 2d 54, 73, 153 Ill. Dec. 177, 566 N.E.2d 1283 (1990). In addition, the statute must be narrowly tailored; that is, a statute incorporating a suspect ...


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