Lalli v. Lalli 439 U.S. 259 (1978)

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LALLI v. LALLI 439 U.S. 259 (1978)

In Lalli a fragmented Supreme Court brought further confusion to the body of equal protection doctrine governing classifications based on illegitimacy. A 5–4 majority upheld a New York law that allowed an illegitimate child to inherit from his or her father only if a court, during the father's lifetime and no later than two years after the child's birth, had declared the father's paternity. Justice lewis f. powell, who had written the majority opinion in trimble v. gordon (1977), wrote for a plurality of three Justices. Powell distinguished Trimble as a case in which even a judicial order declaring paternity would not have allowed inheritance; only the marriage of the child's parents would suffice. In Lalli the state could properly insist on the "evidentiary" requirement of a judicial order to establish paternity. The other six Justices all thought Lalli and Trimble indistinguishable: the four Lalli dissenters, plus two who joined the majority in upholding the law. The latter two Justices voted in accordance with their Trimble dissents.

The precedential force of Trimble may be uncertain, but at least seven Justices (the Lalli plurality and dissenters) all agreed that the standard of review for testing classifications based on illegitimacy was more rigorous than the rational basis test. Such classifications, said the plurality, would be invalid unless they were "substantially related to permissible state interests."

The state's interest in Lalli was the achievement of finality in the settlement of decedents' estates. The court order requirement provided sure proof of paternity. The artificiality of the requirement, however, was illustrated dramatically by the facts of Lalli itself, as Justice byron r. white, for the dissenters, made clear. The decedent had often acknowledged his children openly; he had even executed a notarized document referring to one of them as "my son" and consenting to his marriage. Paternity had been proved clearly; what was missing was the formality of a court order. Such a judicial proceeding, of course, is least likely in the case in which the father and his illegitimate child are closest, and the father's acknowledgment of paternity has been most clearly established by nonjudicial means. The New York estate planners who wrote the law contrived its inertia to lean against the children of informal unions. Lalli is thus reminiscent of an earlier legal order designed to assure a man that his wealth and status would attach to a woman only when he chose to formalize their union and would pass only to the children of such a union.

Kenneth L. Karst

(see also: Freedom of Intimate Association.)

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Lalli v. Lalli 439 U.S. 259 (1978)

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