Trimble v. Gordon
Decided on Apr. 26, 1977; 430 US 762

Mother sues on behalf of her illegitimate daughter for heirship over deceased father's estate


A. Issues Discussed: Civil Rights (state), 14th Amendment


B. Legal Question Presented:

Did Section 12 of the Illinois Probate Act violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?


A. Background:

Appellant, Deta Mona Trimble, was the illegitimate (born out of wedlock) daughter of Jessie Trimble (also appellant) and Sherman Gordon.  In 1973, the Circuit Court of Cook County entered a paternity order, and after finding Gordon to be Deta Mona’s father, ordered him to pay child support.  In 1974, Gordon was killed in a homicide. 

Shortly after his death, the appellants petitioned for Gordon’s estate with the Probate Division of the Circuit Court of Cook County.  The court entered an order determining heirship, and identified the only heirs of Gordon to be his father, mother, brother, two sisters, and half brother (appellees).

The Circuit Court rejected appellant Trimble’s claim of heirship over Gordon’s estate due to Section 12 of the Illinois Probate Act, which allows legitimate children to inherit from either their mothers or fathers, but only allows illegitimate children to inherit from their mothers.  Consequently, Deta Trimble, the illegitimate daughter of Sherman Gordon, was unable to inherit her father’s estate when he died.

The appellants filed a notice of appeal challenging the constitutionality of Section 12 in the Illinois Supreme Court.  The Court affirmed the Circuit Courts decision and did not find Section 12 to be unconstitutional. 

Appellants appealed to the US Supreme Court, and the high court granted certiorari to review the case.
B. Counsel of Record:


Opposing Side

James D. Weill argued the cause for appellants.  With him on the briefs were Devereux Bowly, Charles Linn, and Jane G. Stevens.
Miles N. Beermann argued the cause for appellees.  With him on the brief was Fred Klinsky.

C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
Ericc M. Lieberman, Norman Dorsen, Melvin Wulf, and Joel M. Gora filed a brief for the American Civil Liberties Union as amicus curiae urging reversal. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of petitioner.

"In a case like this, the Equal Protection Clause requires more than the mere incantation of a proper state purpose.  No one disputes the appropriateness of Illinois' concern with the family unit, perhaps the most fundamental social institution of our society.  However, the [Illinois Supreme Court] did not address the relation between [Section] 12 and the promotion of legitimate family relationships, thus leaving the constitutional analysis incomplete. 

In subsequent decisions, we [US Supreme Court] have expressly considered and rejected the argument that a State may attempt to influence the actions of men and women by imposing sanctions on the children born of their illegitimate relationships.  The reasons for rejecting this justification are equally applicable here:

'The status of illegitimacy has expressed through the ages society's condemnation of irresponsible liaisons beyond the bonds of marriage. But visiting this condemnation on the head of an infant 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.' Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. (406 US 164) (1972)

The parents have the ability to conform their conduct to societal norms, but their illegitimate children can affect neither their parents' conduct nor their own status...

Difficulties of proving paternity in some situations do not justify the total statutory disinheritance of illegitimate children whose fathers die intestate. The facts of this case graphically illustrate the constitutional defect of [Section] 12.

Sherman Gordon was found to be the father of Deta Mona in a state-court paternity action prior to his death. On the strength of that finding, he was ordered to contribute to the support of his child. That adjudication should be equally sufficient to establish Deta Mona's right to claim a child's share of Gordon's estate, for the State's interest in the accurate and efficient disposition of property at death would not be compromised in any way by allowing her claim in these circumstances...

[W]e conclude that 12 of the Illinois Probate Act cannot be squared with the command of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."
Justice Vote: 5 Pro vs. 4 Con
  • Powell, L. Pro (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • White, B. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Pro (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Wrote dissenting opinion, Joined other filed dissent)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Co-authored dissent with Burger and Stewart) 
  • Burger, W. Con (Co-authored dissent with Blackmun and Stewart)
  • Stewart, P. Con (Co-authored dissent with Burger and Blackmun)

The ACLU filed as amicus urging reversal; The US Supreme Court reversed the Illinois Supreme Court decision 5-4, giving the ACLU an apparent win.