One of the great things about contributing to a legal blog is that you get to write about court decisions that, although not particularly noteworthy for the legal ground they break, are really entertaining to read. One such decision recently emanated from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. 

In Kennedy v. Trustees, Will of President John F. Kennedy, 08 Civ. 8889 (S.D.N.Y. June 19, 2009), Judge William H. Pauley III dismissed an action in which the plaintiff, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, alleged that he was the illegitimate son of the late President John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe. Although not the basis for its dismissal of the action, the court noted that the plaintiff had no documentary evidence of his kinship claim, despite the fact that he attached a photograph of himself to his complaint, showing his resemblance to President Kennedy. And, in case you were wondering, the plaintiff’s name at birth was John Ruben Burton; he changed it in 1994. You really can’t make this stuff up.

The plaintiff’s initial complaint sought an order directing genetic testing of two members of the Kennedy family (Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy, Jr. and Congressman Patrick Joseph Kennedy) and, upon confirmation of his claim through such genetic testing, an order compelling the Trustees of the testamentary trust created under President Kennedy’s Last Will and Testament to “honor their fiduciary duties.”  The Trustees moved to dismiss the action, for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The plaintiff’s amended complaint, filed after the motion to dismiss was briefed and argued, dropped the claim for genetic testing, instead requested an order compelling the Trustees to investigate his claim of kinship and his entitlement to an inheritance.

The court dismissed the action because plaintiff’s claim, for breach of fiduciary duty, was legally insufficient. The court first considered whether the Trustees would owe the plaintiff a fiduciary duty if he were successful in establishing that he was in fact President Kennedy’s son.  In doing so, the court applied Massachusetts law, as President Kennedy was domiciled in Massachusetts at the time of his death, and section 3-5.1 of the New York Estates, Powers & Trusts Law provides that “[i]nterpretation of a testamentary disposition of personal property shall be made in accordance with the local law of the jurisdiction in which the testator was domiciled at the time the will was executed.” 

The court explained that prior to 1987, Massachusetts law provided that words as such as issue, children, and the like meant only children born of a lawful marriage, absent anything indicating a contrary intent (see Decision at 7 [quoting and citing Massachusetts authority]).  And the will at issue (executed long prior to 1987) contained nothing to suggest that President Kennedy intended to include non-marital children as beneficiaries.  Therefore, the court concluded, the plaintiff would not be entitled to inherit under the will even if he were able to prove that he was President Kennedy’s son. As the Trustees could not owe the plaintiff a fiduciary duty, the claim for a breach thereof was legally insufficient and subject to dismissal.

From the perspective of the trust and estate litigator, the court’s analysis of the probate exception to federal diversity jurisdiction warrants some discussion. The probate exception was once described as “one of the most mysterious and esoteric branches of the law of federal jurisdiction” (Dragan v. Miller, 679 F.2d 712, 713 [7th Cir. 1982]). A full discussion of the probate exception is beyond the scope of this blog entry, although you can click here for an article providing more information. Suffice it to say that the exception prohibits federal courts from “interfering with [a] probate proceedings or assum[ing] general jurisdiction of the probate or control of the property in the custody of the state court”(Marshall v. Marshall, 547 U.S. 293, 126 S. Ct. 1735, 1747 [2006]).

Judge Pauley analyzed the scope of the probate exception, determining that the plaintiff’s request for an order compelling the Trustees to investigate his kinship claim was not barred by the probate exception because it neither sought to have the court interference with a probate matter nor exercise control over a res in the custody of a state court (see Decision at 6). If such investigation ultimately established that that the plaintiff was President Kennedy’s son, however, the court would not be permitted to determine the plaintiff’s claim to his inheritance under the President’s will, as to do so would be to exercise control of a res in the custody of a state court (see id.).

While this case may not break any new legal ground, it is worth reading for the court’s analysis of the probate exception to federal diversity jurisdiction — always an interesting read for the estate litigator — and for pure entertainment value. Whoever said that life is stranger than fiction was right on the money.