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In re Estate of Seward

Supreme Court of Alaska

July 20, 2018

In the Matter of the Estate of JAMES V. SEWARD.

          Appeal from the Superior Court No. 3 AN-13-02105 PR of the State of Alaska, Third Judicial District, Anchorage, Erin B. Marston, Judge.

          Vincent E. Mock and Gaylene L. Mock, pro se, Lexington, Kentucky, Appellants.

          Donna C. Willard, Law Offices of Donna C. Willard, Personal Representative of the Estate of James V. Seward, Anchorage, Appellee.

          Dario Borghesan, Assistant Attorney General, Anchorage, and Jahna Lindemuth, Attorney General, Juneau, for Amicus Curiae State of Alaska.

          Before: Stowers, Chief Justice, Winfree, Maassen, Bolger, and Carney, Justices.




         A man asserted in a probate proceeding that he was the decedent's son and requested a paternity determination. The personal representative opposed the request, arguing that a paternity determination could not be made in a probate proceeding and that this particular paternity determination was barred by a statute of limitations. The superior court agreed that probate proceedings were not appropriate for paternity determinations and rejected the man's request, but it did not rule on the statute of limitations issue. The court later determined that the man was not an interested person to the probate proceeding and barred him from further participation.

         On appeal, we held that paternity determinations can be made in probate proceedings; we then requested supplemental briefing on the statute of limitations issue. We now hold that a paternity determination request during a probate proceeding is not barred by any statute of limitations, and we remand for further proceedings consistent with this and our earlier decision.


         James V. Seward died in Anchorage in May 2013 at the age of 90.[2] Seward had executed a September 11, 2008 will appointing a personal representative and declaring that he had no spouse or children.[3] Seward's will was admitted for informal probate in September 2013.[4]

         In October 2013 Vincent Mock and his mother, Gaylene Mock, began efforts in the probate proceeding to establish that Seward was Vincent's father.[5] Gaylene argued that she was a creditor of the estate, seeking back child support for raising Vincent.[6] Vincent argued that the will was invalid and he was entitled by intestate succession to the entire estate, or, alternatively, that he was a pretermitted heir and entitled to a portion of the estate.[7] The superior court ruled that paternity determinations could not be made in probate proceedings and rejected Vincent's requests.[8] The superior court eventually ruled that Gaylene and Vincent were not interested persons to the probate proceeding and precluded them from making any further filings.[9]

         Gaylene and Vincent appealed. We affirmed in part in Estate of Seward, holding that Gaylene's creditor claim was barred by the statute of limitations and that Vincent was not entitled to intestate succession or relief as a pretermitted heir.[10] But we also held that paternity determinations can be made in probate proceedings and that, as Vincent also had suggested, he might be entitled to a statutory exempt property allowance if he were Seward's son.[11] We ended our decision by noting we would order supplemental briefing on whether Vincent's paternity determination for a statutory allowance might be barred by a statute of limitations, because the personal representative had argued in the superior court that all of Vincent's claims were so barred.[12] We did so, [13] and also asked the State of Alaska to file an amicus curiae brief. We thank the State for its participation in this appeal.


         How to interpret a statute is a legal question.[14] Whether a statute of limitations applies to a paternity determination is also a legal question.[15] We answer legal questions using our independent judgment, "adopting the rule of law most persuasive in light of precedent, reason, and policy."[16]


         A. A Paternity Determination In A Probate Proceeding Is Not A Separate Cause Of Action Subject To A Statute Of Limitations.

         The first step in evaluating a statute of limitations defense is to examine the claim sought to be barred. We therefore begin our analysis by examining the exempt property allowance statute, AS 13.12.403.

         This statute provides that when the decedent has no surviving spouse, "the decedent's children" are "entitled from the estate to a value, not exceeding $10, 000 in excess of security interests in the items, in household furniture, automobiles, furnishings, appliances, and personal effects."[17] Seward was not survived by a spouse; Vincent therefore is entitled to the allowance if he can show that he is one of "the decedent's children." The exempt property allowance statute does not define "children," but the probate code generally defines "child" to include "an individual entitled to take as a child ... by intestate succession from the parent whose relationship is involved."[18] We therefore look to the probate code mechanism for establishing the parent-child relationship for purposes of intestate succession, AS 13.12.114, to determine whether Vincent could be a child under that provision.[19]

         Alaska Statute 13.12.114(a) provides: "[F]or purposes of intestate succession by, through, or from a person, an individual is the child of the individual's natural parents, regardless of their marital status, and the parent and child relationship may be established as indicated under AS 25.20.050." Alaska Statute 25.20.050 in turn provides: "A child born out of wedlock is legitimated and considered the heir of the putative parent when ... the putative parent is determined by a superior court without jury or by another tribunal, upon sufficient evidence, to be a parent of the child."[20]Finally, AS 13.12.114(d) qualifies: "To the extent there is a conflict between this section and either AS 25.20.050 or AS 25.23.130, this section controls."

         Examining these various statutes together, Vincent's assertion of a right to the exempt property allowance turns on whether Seward is one of Vincent's "natural parents" under AS 13.12.114. We must therefore decide whether the language of AS 13.12.114 creates its own cause of action distinct from Vincent's assertion of right to the exempt property allowance. If it does, we will treat Vincent's paternity determination ...

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