JANELLE JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS ADMINISTRATRIX OF THE ESTATE OF NAHYER JOHNSON, A MINOR, DECEASED
NESHAMINY SHORE PICNIC PARK APPEAL OF: CARL GRIGGS
from the Order Entered, June 4, 2018, in the Court of Common
Pleas of Philadelphia County, Civil Division at No(s):
BEFORE: PANELLA, P.J., KUNSELMAN, J., and MUSMANNO, J.
tragic wrongful death and survival action, the minor
decedent's father, Carl Griggs, appeals from the trial
court's decision that he forfeited his share of the
proceeds from the action filed by the decedent's mother,
Janelle Johnson, under Pennsylvania probate law. See
20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b). After careful review, we affirm.
pertinent factual and procedural history is as follows:
decedent Nahyer Johnson (Child) was just four years old when
he drowned at the Neshaminy Shore Picnic Park during a family
get-together. At the time of his death, Child was living with
Mother; Father had been incarcerated for the preceding ten
months. Father had been largely absent from Child's life.
The parents separated before Child's birth, and Father
was not involved at all during the first year of Child's
life. In the year preceding Child's death, Father only
saw Child once, when Mother brought Child to visit Father in
prison. In fact, Child thought his maternal grandfather was
the tragedy, Mother was granted Letters of Administration and
she subsequently commenced a wrongful death and survival
action on behalf of Child's estate and herself
individually. Prior to trial, the parties to that action
negotiated a global settlement subject to approval of
distributions pursuant to Pa.R.C.P. 2206.
2017, Mother filed a Petition for Forfeiture of Father's
share of the wrongful death proceeds arising from Child's
death. See 20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b)(1). An
evidentiary hearing was held on the petition on September 20,
2017. Mother and Father appeared, as did Keith Johnson (the
maternal grandfather) and Shontae Sancho, the owner of the
Child's daycare. All four testified about the
relationship, or the lack thereof, between Father and Child.
The court ultimately granted Mother's Petition for
Forfeiture in June 2018.
presents two issues in this timely-filed appeal:
1. Whether the trial court erred when it misinterpreted the
relevant law regarding forfeiture pursuant to 20 Pa.C.S.
§ 2106(b), by conflating the support and desertion
criteria, which requires an intent to permanently abandon,
and by interpreting the forfeiture statute to exclude any
consideration of noneconomic support.
2. Whether the trial court misapplied the relevant law
regarding forfeiture pursuant to 20 Pa.C.S. § 2106(b) by
1) finding that willfulness need not be considered; 2) basing
its decision on facts beyond the one year prior to death; 3)
finding forfeiture when there was insufficient proof in the
record to show that defendant had the capacity to perform the
duty of support; 4) improperly applying
Teaschenko and Moyer.
Brief at 2 (footnotes added).
discuss below, the crux of this matter is one of first
impression. The current version of Section 2106(b) was
amended on December 20, 2000 and made effective on February
18, 2001. Father's appeal concerns the dissonance between
the current version of the forfeiture statute and our case
law applying the prior version. Specifically, Father claims
the court erred when it departed from prior case law, which
found forfeiture only when the parent willingly and
completely failed to perform the duty to support the
child. Since Father's issues are interconnected, we
address them contemporaneously.
Court recently reaffirmed our standard of review in these
When reviewing a decree entered by the Orphans' Court,
this Court must determine whether the record is free from
legal error and the court's factual findings are
supported by the evidence. Because the Orphans' Court
sits as the fact-finder, it determines the credibility of the
witnesses and, on review, we will not reverse its credibility
determinations absent an abuse of that discretion. However,
we are not constrained to give the same deference to any
resulting legal conclusions. Where the rules of law on which
the court relied are palpably wrong or clearly inapplicable,
we will reverse the court's decree.
Estate of Powell, --- A.3d ---, 2019 PA Super 140,
at *2-3 (Pa. Super. May 1, 2019) (citing In re Estate of
Fuller, 87 A.3d 330, 333 (Pa. Super. 2014)) (further
review a legal conclusion based on statutory interpretation,
our standard of review is de novo and our scope of
review is plenary. See In re Estate of Fuller, 87
A.3d at 333 (citation omitted).
those standards in mind, we start by addressing how the
forfeiture statute has been amended. Under both the current
and former iterations of the forfeiture statute, there are
two ways a parent forfeits his or her interest in the
child's estate: when the parent failed to support the
child; or when the parent deserted the child. See 20
Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b)(1).
current version of Section 2106(b) provides, in relevant
(b) Parent's share.-Any parent who, for
one year or upwards previous to the death of the parent's
minor or dependent child, has:
(1) failed to perform the duty to support the child or who,
for one year, has deserted the minor or dependent child
shall have no right or interest under this chapter in the
real or personal estate of the minor or dependent child. The
determination under paragraph (1) shall be made by the court
after considering the quality, nature and extent of the
parent's contact with the child and the physical,
emotional and financial support provided to the child.
20 Pa.C.S.A. § 2106(b).
to its amendment, Section 2106(b) provided:
Any parent who, for one year or upwards previous to the death
of the parent's minor or dependent child, has
willfully neglected or failed to perform
any duty of support owed to the minor or dependent
child or who, for one year, has willfully deserted
the minor or dependent child shall have no right or interest