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In re Estate of Poole

October 17, 2003

IN RE ESTATE OF MADISON RAE POOLE
(RANDY L. POOLE, APPELLEE,
v.
DEBRA JEAN CLAUSEN, ADM'R, APPELLANT).



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Freeman

PUBLISHED

Docket No. 93872-Agenda 9-March 2003.

This appeal arises from a decision of the circuit court of Putnam County denying petitioner Randy L. Poole's petition to revoke letters of administration issued to respondent, Debra Jean Clausen. The appellate court reversed the circuit court's order and remanded the cause for a hearing. 328 Ill. App. 3d 964. We granted Clausen's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill. 2d R. 315) and now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

BACKGROUND

In 1997, Poole began living with Christina Kay Clausen, the daughter of respondent Clausen. Poole and Christina subsequently moved to Virginia, where they maintained a conjugal relationship. In October 1997, Christina became pregnant. During the early months of the pregnancy, the couple returned to Illinois, where they continued to live together. The couple did not marry.

On May 26, 1998, when Christina was approximately eight months pregnant, she was involved in an automobile accident and sustained fatal injuries. *fn1 Doctors later performed a Caesarean section operation and delivered a stillborn fetus, who was named Madison Rae Poole. There is no dispute in this case that the fetus did survive Christina.

On September 11, 1998, Clausen filed a petition for letters of administration in the circuit court of Putnam County for the estate of Madison Rae Poole. The court issued letters of administration to Clausen on October 1, 1998. On that same date, the circuit court also entered an order declaring heirship, identifying as Madison's heirs Clausen (maternal grandmother), Jon Robert Clausen (maternal grandfather), Elizabeth Clausen (maternal aunt), and Theresa Clausen (maternal aunt). The court later amended the order to show that the only heirs at law were the maternal grandparents.

At some point during the administration of the estate, and the record is unclear on this point, a claim for uninsured-motorist benefits was registered with the insurer of the car Christina was driving at the time of the accident, Country Companies Mutual Insurance Company. *fn2 The matter apparently was settled without resort to litigation. On November 8, 1999, Clausen sought court approval to execute the settlement and to distribute the proceeds to the heirs at law. The proceeds of the settlement were listed as $66,975.50.

Poole thereafter filed a "Petition to Revoke Letters of Administration" on November 19, 1999. In the petition, Poole asserted that he was Madison Rae Poole's natural father and, as such, was entitled to priority in the granting of letters of administration. Poole requested that the court revoke the letters of administration previously granted to Clausen. Poole attached to the petition an "affidavit of parenthood" in which he swore that he and Christina had lived together since August 17, 1997, and that Christina became pregnant with his child in October 1997. Poole also averred that at all times after the conception, he acknowledged that he was the father of Christina's unborn child and that he "contributed to the support, maintenance, and comfort" of Christina. He swore that the couple lived together as a family unit and that the couple's friends and family acknowledged that the couple were expecting a child. Poole noted that the May 26, 1998, automobile accident claimed the life of Christina and resulted in the death of his unborn child. On June 29, 1998, a "certificate of fetal death" was issued by the local registrar, in which Poole was listed as the father of the stillborn fetus, whose name was listed as Madison Rae Poole. A copy of the certificate was also attached to Poole's petition.

The circuit court subsequently dismissed Poole's petition with leave to amend due to lack of standing. Poole later filed an amended petition. In this petition, Poole reasserted the factual allegations from his previous pleading, but added that he was, pursuant to section 2-2 of the Probate Act of 1975 (755 ILCS 5/2-2 (West 1998)), the sole surviving "eligible parent" of Madison Rae Poole and that, as such, he had standing in the matter and was entitled to priority over Clausen in the granting of letters of administration. Poole requested that Clausen's letters of administration be revoked and that he be appointed the administrator of the estate.

The circuit court denied Poole's petition, ruling that Poole failed to satisfy the statutory requirements of an eligible parent under section 2-2 of the Probate Act. Because he lacked standing in the matter, the court denied Poole's petition to revoke the letters of administration of Clausen and to appoint Poole as administrator. Poole thereafter filed a motion challenging the constitutionality of section 2-2. The circuit court denied the motion, upholding the statute's constitutionality, and Poole appealed.

The appellate court reversed the circuit court's order and remanded the cause for a hearing. The appellate court noted that under the plain language of section 9-3 of the Probate Act, a biological parent has precedence over a grandparent for letters of administration. 328 Ill. App. 3d at 969. Based on this statutory language, the appellate court stated that "it certainly appears that [Poole's] petition for revocation of the letters of administration should have been granted." 328 Ill. App. 3d at 969. However, the appellate court noted that Clausen had argued that Poole was not an eligible parent under section 2-2 of the Probate Act. 328 Ill. App. 3d at 969. She objected that Poole lacked standing to object to her appointment as administrator because he is not a "parent" as that term is used in the statute. The court disagreed with Clausen's contentions for two reasons. The court first observed that "the language [of section 2-2] limits the definition of `eligible parent' to the particular section of the Act." 328 Ill. App. 3d at 970. The court then pointed out that section 2-2 had been recently redrafted by the legislature to make it gender-neutral in accordance with this court's decision in In re Estate of Hicks, 174 Ill. 2d 433 (1996). The appellate court reasoned that if a mother can qualify as an "eligible parent" under the statute, then so too should a biological father even if he is not married to the mother. 328 Ill. App. 3d at 970. After reviewing the plain language of the statute, its legislative history and the facts of the case, the appellate court concluded that "it appears that [Poole] could qualify as an eligible parent" under the Probate Act. 328 Ill. App. 3d at 970.

The appellate court also pointed out that it believed that the Wrongful Death Act was pertinent to the issues in this case. 328 Ill. App. 3d at 971. The court noted that in Illinois, under the Wrongful Death Act, an unborn fetus is recognized as a person to the extent that a rebuttable presumption for loss of society existed for the parents of a stillborn child. 328 Ill. App. 3d at 971. The court acknowledged that no such wrongful-death action was filed in this case, but nevertheless concluded that Poole could have brought such a claim for the death of Madison. Moreover, "[i]f [Poole] had a legitimate wrongful death claim, it would appear that he, rather than the grandmother, would have priority for letters of administration for any estate created by advancing that claim." 328 Ill. App. 3d at 971. Recognizing that the legitimacy of such a claim is dependent upon Poole's ability to prove that he was Madison's biological father, the ...


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