Illegitimacy Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Status accorded a person whose biological parents are not legally married to each other.

Because of the traditional moral and, by consequence, legal stigmatization of illegitimate births, children born outside of marriageMarriage had only limited rights before 1968. With regard to support or maintenance and inheritance rights, illegitimate children generally were in a far less advantageous situation than children born to married parents.Family and children

In 1968 the validity of a statutory classification based on marital status under the equal protection clause was challenged before the Supreme Court in Levy v. Louisiana[case]Levy v. Louisiana[Levy v. Louisiana] (1968). In its landmark decision, the Court struck down a Louisiana statute that denied illegitimate children a right to recover for the wrongful death of their mother. Justice William O. Douglas’s opinion for the majority rejected the statute for discriminating on a basis that was completely irrelevant to its purpose and subject matter. The Court held that it was “invidious to discriminate against [the children] when no action, conduct, or demeanor of theirs is possibly relevant to the harm that was done the mother.”

In a companion case, Glona v. American Guarantee and Liability Insurance Co.[case]Glona v. American Guarantee and Liability Insurance Co.[Glona v. American Guarantee and Liability Insurance Co.] (1968), the Court declared unconstitutional a state law that prevented parents from suing for the wrongful death of their illegitimate children. The Court concluded that “where the claimant is plainly the mother, the State denies equal protection of the laws to withhold relief merely because the child, wrongfully killed, was born to her out of wedlock.” Levy and Glona were fundamental decisions that had significance for later decisions.

In its next illegitimacy case, Labine v. Vincent[case]Labine v. Vincent[Labine v. Vincent] (1971), the Court departed from Levy and Glona. The Court examined Louisiana’s intestate succession laws, which barred illegitimate children from sharing equally with legitimate children in their father’s estate. The Court under Warren E. Burger upheld the Louisiana succession statute. According to Justice Hugo L. Black, Levy did not mean that a state can never treat illegitimate children differently from those born within marriage. The Court reasoned that the Louisiana succession laws did not create an “insurmountable barrier” for the child, who could have inherited under a will or if the parents married. The Court also rejected claims that illegitimacy was a suspect classification. Black supported the states’ right to use inheritance penalties on illegitimate children to promote birth of children within legally recognized marriages.

Equal Protection

In Jiminez v. Weinberger[case]Jiminez v. Weinberger[Jiminez v. Weinberger] (1974), the Court invalidated a provision of the Social Security Act that allowed intestate inheritance of disability benefits by all legitimate children and by illegitimate children who had been “legitimated.” Other illegitimate children could inherit benefits only if they proved that they were living with or being supported by the father at the time the disability began. In other words, illegitimate children who were neither living with the father nor being supported by him when the disability arose could not get benefits. The Court ruled the act’s provision unconstitutional. The Court reasoned that, assuming the illegitimate children were actually dependent on the father, the purposes of the Social Security Act would not be served by conclusively denying them benefits. The provision would also discriminate between two classes of illegitimate children although the “potential for spurious claims” would be the same between both groups.

At issue in Trimble v. Gordon[case]Trimble v. Gordon[Trimble v. Gordon] (1977) was the constitutionality of an Illinois probate statute that refused intestate succession to illegitimate children. Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., writing for a bare majority of five justices, struck down the law on the ground that the law was not “substantially related to permissible state interests.” He also rejected the state’s argument that the discrimination was justified by the promotion of traditional, legal family relationships. He criticized Labine because it had accepted similar reasoning without sufficient analysis or scrutiny.

Trimble’s small majority demonstrated the Court’s ambivalence regarding illegitimate children, which became clear in Lalli v. Lalli[case]Lalli v. Lalli[Lalli v. Lalli] (1978), decided just one year later. Lalli presented the Court with a challenge to the constitutionality of New York’s Estates, Powers, and Trusts Laws, which required illegitimate children to submit a court order declaring paternity in order to inherit from their fathers by intestate succession. The Court upheld this law, reasoning that the state had an important interest in preventing fraud and that requiring paternity to be established during the father’s lifetime was substantially related to that objective.

Similarly, in Mathews v. Lucas[case]Mathews v. Lucas[Mathews v. Lucas] (1976), the Court sustained a provision of the Social Security Act that allowed children to receive survivors’ benefits only if they could establish both paternity and that the father was providing financial support. The law created a presumption of dependency for all legitimate children and all illegitimate children who were entitled to inherit under state law. The law allowed other illegitimate children to inherit only if they could prove financial dependency on their fathers. The Court found that the distinction among illegitimate children was constitutional because it allowed the government to reduce its administrative burdens. Requiring every child to prove dependency would have been a substantial additional burden on the government; allowing all children to inherit without having to prove dependency would have been a greater cost on the government, one which it was not constitutionally required to absorb.

Although in a number of cases the Court stated that illegitimate children must not be given a lesser status because of their illegitimacy, it also made clear that their illegitimacy can justify certain qualifications of their rights in order to satisfy legitimate state interests. In examining questions regarding the status of illegitimate children, the Court must weigh the rights of the individual children born out of wedlock against society’s larger interests in protecting the family unit.

Further Reading
  • Ball, Howard. The Supreme Court in the Intimate Lives of Americans: Birth, Sex, Marriage, Childbearing, and Death. New York: New York University Press, 2002.
  • Hoover, Sonja. Welfare Reform and States’ Efforts to Prevent Births Outside of Marriage. Denver, Colo.: National Conference of State Legislatures, 1998.
  • Langerin-Falcon, Catherine. “Second Class Citizens?” The Humanist 58, no. 6 (November/December, 1991): 11-15.
  • Nechyba, Thomas J. Social Approval, Values, and AFDC: A Re-examination of the Illegitimacy Debate. Cambridge, Mass.: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1999.
  • Reekie, Gail. Measuring Immorality: Social Inquiry and the Problem of Illegitimacy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
  • Zingo, Martha. Nameless People: Legal Discrimination Against Non-Marital Children in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1994.

Equal protection clause

Family and children

Fourteenth Amendment


Categories: History