Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Dog Ate My Mother's Marriage Records

In Elvis Decoded, I write:

“Regarding the will, this document cannot be used as evidence of anything in this case. Elvis included in his will ‘any lawful issue’ he may have at the time of his death, which would allow another child to be named in the bequests should Elvis not update his will to include any such child (or children). That is, he used that language as a catch-all to cover any children other than Lisa Marie Presley. This is not evidence that Elvis had other children, just that he wanted to cover other children in his will in case the document had not been updated at the time of his death. Further, an argument could be made as to whether a child born out of wedlock would be considered ‘lawful issue.’”

In the case of Deborah Presley described at http://www.preslaw.net/presley-v-hanks.html (which is an appeals case), we find that Ms. Presley claims to be the illegitimate daughter of Elvis Presley, and as such, “seeks her share of the estate.” The court, however, found that illegitimate children of Elvis Presley are not provided for in the probated will.

Of note in the appellate court’s opinion:

“In the case before us, it is uncontroverted that Elvis Presley had been involved in a paternity case and was cognizant of claims placed against him for children born out of wedlock. In Item IV, paragraph (b), the testator makes provision for the support and maintenance of his family, vesting the trustee with absolute discretion in the manner and amount to be used for that purpose. At the time the will was executed, the testator had one child of his only marriage. The provision for the child is coupled with the provision ‘and any other lawful issue I might have.’ (emphasis supplied) There was no doubt in Mr. Presley's mind that Lisa Marie was his issue, nor was there any doubt on his part that she was born in lawful wedlock. With this knowledge of the status of his daughter, he explicitly describes the other objects of his bounty as ‘any other lawful issue.’

Moreover, the clause provides for issue the testator ‘might have’ indicating his intent to provide for those coming into existence after the execution of the will. The intent of the testator to provide for only legitimate children becomes even more clear when we consider his disposition of the corpus of the trust. Here again, he utilizes the descriptive word ‘lawful’ when referring to his children who should receive his bounty. A will should be construed to give effect to every word and clause contained therein. Bell v. Shannon, 212 Tenn. 28, 367 S.W.2d 761 (1963). Unless we disregard and give no meaning to the word ‘lawful,’ we are compelled to believe that the word was used to denote those born in lawful wedlock.”

So, the question posed in Elvis Decoded as to whether "lawful issue" pertains to illegitimate children is an important one, based not only on the language in the will, but also on the testator’s intent (which is a key factor). And, the analysis is in line with the notion that the language in the will is “a catch-all to cover any children other than Lisa Marie Presley.” The qualifying piece of the puzzle is thusly in place: only legitimate children need apply. However, the court's finding takes the interpretation further than I did in Elvis Decoded, since the court had reached a conclusion as to what the term "lawful issue" meant, and what the testator's intent was. So, where I write that the language in the will is “a catch-all to cover any children other than Lisa Marie Presley,” the court's decision narrows that to, “a catch-all to cover any legitimate children other than Lisa Marie Presley that Elvis might have after the will was prepared.” This is accurate because in 1977, Elvis knew that he had no other legitimate children, so the language refers to any legitimate children he “might have” with a future wife.

To all those who are heading over to Graceland, with DNA in hand, to pick up the keys and your inheritance check, please stop by the courthouse first and get your parents’ marriage records.

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