In a decision that appears to further punish children who have already been abused, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that a child cannot inherit from a parent whose rights have been terminated.
“Because this disturbing decision piles even more hardship on this child whose life was already severely damaged by parental abuse and neglect, I vehemently dissent,” said Chief Justice Margaret Workman, writing in dissent of the decision along with one other judge.
The father, Michael Hall, lost his rights in 2008 and his daughter was placed with the mother. The couple divorced later that year. Hall was indicted on a sexual abuse charge in 2009 and then died in 2011, before the criminal case concluded. Michaelin Hall, the plaintiff in the case and Hall’s daughter, is the only child he fathered.
Attorneys representing the child argued, in a 2017 appeal, that a child maintains a right to child support after parental rights have been terminated, and that the right to inherit should be treated the same way.
“An abused child is an innocent party and there would be no reason to deny a child assets that child would otherwise have inherited from its parent,” the petition reads.
Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Ohio have all preserved the child’s right to inherit. Michaelin’s lawyers argued in the 2017 petition that West Virginia also protects that right, but it is “common practice in West Virginia for the courts” to treat the termination of parental rights as a “bilateral termination,” according to the petition. In other words, both the parent and the child lose their rights.
The court’s majority disagreed, saying it finds that a child whose parent had lost his rights “does not meet the statutory definition of a descendant and, therefore, does not qualify to inherit under the statutory provisions pertaining to descent and distribution.”
Workman wrote that she believes the ruling “effectively established a new law extinguishing the right of a child to inherit from a parent without a will and whose rights had been terminated,” according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Calling the majority’s analysis over whether the child met the state’s definition of descendant “tortured,” Workman wrote in her dissent: “Under the plain language of this statute, Michaelin — the deceased’s only child and surviving descendant — inherits his entire estate because he left no surviving spouse. Case closed.”