JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
Prince Ricker, appellant's father, died intestate on December 22, 1976. At that time, § 38 of the Texas Probate Code
Only a few facts need be stated. In November 1957, Prince Ricker and appellant's mother participated in a ceremonial marriage, but it was invalid because Ricker's divorce from his first wife was not final. Appellant was born a year later. Ricker was lawfully married three times, once before and twice after his liaison with appellant's mother. He was
Shortly after Ricker's death in 1976, his oldest daughter was appointed administratrix of his estate. The estate was still open in February 1978, when appellant formally notified the administratrix and the Probate Court of her claim to a one-sixth share of the estate. In due course, she filed a formal complaint; a jury found that Ricker was her father but the trial court concluded that he was never validly married to her mother and denied her claim.
In the Court of Appeals, appellant contended that she was entitled to inherit even if she was illegitimate because § 42 was unconstitutional, and also that she was entitled to be legitimated on various theories. The appellate court rejected all her arguments.
Although the question presented in this case is framed in terms of "retroactivity," its answer is governed by a rather clear distinction that has emerged from our cases considering the constitutionality of statutory provisions that impose special burdens on illegitimate children. In these cases, we have unambiguously concluded that a State may not justify discriminatory treatment of illegitimates in order to express its disapproval of their parents' misconduct.
The state interest in the orderly disposition of decedents' estates may justify the imposition of special requirements upon an illegitimate child who asserts a right to inherit from her father, and, of course, it justifies the enforcement of generally applicable limitations on the time and the manner in which claims may be asserted. After an estate has been finally distributed, the interest in finality may provide an additional, valid justification for barring the belated assertion of claims, even though they may be meritorious and even though mistakes of law or fact may have occurred during the
The Texas courts have relied on Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762 (1977), as a basis for holding § 42 invalid in cases that were pending on April 26, 1977 — the date Trimble was decided. See Winn v. Lackey, 618 S.W.2d 910 (Tex. Civ. App. 1981); Lovejoy v. Lillie, 569 S.W.2d 501 (Texas Civ. App. 1978). Although the administration of Prince Ricker's estate was in progress on that date, the court refused to apply Trimble because appellant's claim was not asserted until later. Thus, the test applied by the Texas court resulted in the denial of appellant's claim because of the conjunction of two facts: (1) her father died before April 26, 1977, and (2) her claim was filed after April 26, 1977.
There is nothing in the record to explain why these two facts, either separately or in combination, should have prevented the applicability of Trimble, and the allowance of appellant's claim, at the time when the trial court was required to make a decision. At that time, the governing law had been established: Trimble had been decided, and it was clear that § 42 was invalid. The state interest in the orderly administration of Prince Ricker's estate would have been served equally well regardless of how the merits of the claim were resolved. In this case, then, neither the date of his death nor the date the claim was filed had any impact on the relevant state interest in orderly administration; their conjunction similarly had no impact on that state interest.
The interest in equal treatment protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution — more specifically, the interest in avoiding unjustified discrimination against children born out of wedlock, see Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 505 (1976) — should therefore have been given controlling effect. That interest requires that appellant's claim to a share in her father's estate be protected by the full applicability of Trimble to her claim.
It is so ordered.
" `is illogical and unjust. Moreover, imposing disabilities on the illegitimate child is contrary to the basic concept of our system that legal burdens should bear some relationship to individual responsibility or wrongdoing. Obviously, no child is responsible for his birth and penalizing the illegitimate child is an ineffectual — as well as an unjust — way of deterring the parent.' 406 U. S., at 175. (Footnote omitted.)" Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 505 (1976).
Although the dissenters did not believe the state interest was sufficient to support the particular statute before the Court in that case, they agreed with the basic proposition that this state interest may justify some differential treatment — "New York might require illegitimates to prove paternity by an elevated standard of proof," id., at 279 (BRENNAN, J., dissenting).