After wrestling in a number of cases with the question of the permissibility of governmental classifications disadvantaging illegitimates and the standard for determining which classifications are sustainable, the Court arrived at a standard difficult to state and even more difficult to apply.1945 Although “illegitimacy is analogous in many respects to the personal characteristics that have been held to be suspect when used as the basis of statutory differentiations,” the analogy is “not sufficient to require ‘our most exacting scrutiny.’ ” The scrutiny to which it is entitled is intermediate, “not a toothless [scrutiny],” but somewhere between that accorded race and that accorded ordinary economic classifications. Basically, the standard requires a determination of a legitimate legislative aim and a careful review of how well the classification serves, or “fits,” the aim.1946 The common rationale of all the illegitimacy cases is not clear, is in many respects not wholly consistent,1947 but the theme that seems to be imposed on them by the more recent cases is that so long as the challenged statute does not so structure its conferral of rights, benefits, or detriments that some illegitimates who would otherwise qualify in terms of the statute’s legitimate purposes are disabled from participation, the imposition of greater burdens upon illegitimates or some classes of illegitimates than upon legitimates is permissible.1948

Intestate succession rights for illegitimates has divided the Court over the entire period. At first adverting to the broad power of the states over descent of real property, the Court employed relaxed scrutiny to sustain a law denying illegitimates the right to share equally with legitimates in the estate of their common father, who had acknowledged the illegitimates but who had died intestate.1949 Labine was strongly disapproved, however, and virtually overruled in Trimble v. Gordon,1950 which found an equal protection violation in a statute allowing illegitimate children to inherit by intestate succession from their mothers but from their fathers only if the father had “acknowledged” the child and the child had been legitimated by the marriage of the parents. The father in Trimble had not acknowledged his child, and had not married the mother, but a court had determined that he was in fact the father and had ordered that he pay child support. Carefully assessing the purposes asserted to be the basis of the statutory scheme, the Court found all but one to be impermissible or inapplicable and that one not served closely enough by the restriction. First, it was impermissible to attempt to influence the conduct of adults not to engage in illicit sexual activities by visiting the consequences upon the offspring.1951 Second, the assertion that the statute mirrored the assumed intent of decedents, in that, knowing of the statute’s operation, they would have acted to counteract it through a will or otherwise, was rejected as unproved and unlikely.1952 Third, the argument that the law presented no insurmountable barrier to illegitimates inheriting since a decedent could have left a will, married the mother, or taken steps to legitimate the child, was rejected as inapposite.1953 Fourth, the statute did address a substantial problem, a permissible state interest, presented by the difficulties of proving paternity and avoiding spurious claims. However, the court thought the means adopted, total exclusion, did not approach the “fit” necessary between means and ends to survive the scrutiny appropriate to this classification. The state court was criticized for failing “to consider the possibility of a middle ground between the extremes of complete exclusion and case-by-case determination of paternity. For at least some significant categories of illegitimate children of intestate men, inheritance rights can be recognized without jeopardizing the orderly settlement of estates or the dependability of titles to property passing under intestacy laws.”1954 Because the state law did not follow a reasonable middle ground, it was invalidated.

A reasonable middle ground was discerned, at least by Justice Powell, in Lalli v. Lalli,1955 concerning a statute that permitted legitimate children to inherit automatically from both their parents, while illegitimates could inherit automatically only from their mothers, and could inherit from their intestate fathers only if a court of competent jurisdiction had, during the father’s lifetime, entered an order declaring paternity. The child tendered evidence of paternity, including a notarized document in which the putative father, in consenting to his marriage, referred to him as “my son” and several affidavits by persons who stated that the elder Lalli had openly and frequently acknowledged that the younger Lalli was his child. In the prevailing view, the single requirement of entry of a court order during the father’s lifetime declaring the child as his met the “middle ground” requirement of Trimble; it was addressed closely and precisely to the substantial state interest of seeing to the orderly disposition of property at death by establishing proof of paternity of illegitimate children and avoiding spurious claims against intestate estates. To be sure, some illegitimates who were unquestionably established as children of the decreased would be disqualified because of failure of compliance, but individual fairness is not the test. The test rather is whether the requirement is closely enough related to the interests served to meet the standard of rationality imposed. Also, although the state’s interest could no doubt have been served by permitting other kinds of proof, that too is not the test of the statute’s validity. Hence, the balancing necessitated by the Court’s promulgation of standards in such cases caused it to come to different results on closely related fact patterns, making predictability quite difficult but perhaps manageable.1956

The Court’s difficulty in arriving at predictable results has extended outside the area of descent of property. Thus, a Texas child support law affording legitimate children a right to judicial action to obtain support from their fathers while not affording the right to illegitimate children denied the latter equal protection. “[A] State may not invidiously discriminate against illegitimate children by denying them substantial benefits accorded children generally. We therefore hold that once a State posits a judicially enforceable right on behalf of children to needed support from their natural fathers there is no constitutionally sufficient justification for denying such an essential right to a child simply because its natural father has not married its mother.”1957

Similarly, the Court struck down a federal Social Security provision that made eligible for benefits, because of an insured parent’s disability, all legitimate children as well as those illegitimate children capable of inheriting personal property under state intestacy law and those children who were illegitimate only because of a nonobvious defect in their parents’ marriage, regardless of whether they were born after the onset of the disability, but that made all other illegitimate children eligible only if they were born prior to the onset of disability and if they were dependent upon the parent prior to the onset of disability. The Court deemed the purpose of the benefits to be to aid all children and rejected the argument that the burden on illegitimates was necessary to avoid fraud.1958

However, in a second case, an almost identical program, providing benefits to children of a deceased insured, was sustained because its purpose was found to be to give benefits to children who were dependent upon the deceased parent and the classifications served that purpose. Presumed dependent were all legitimate children as well as those illegitimate children who were able to inherit under state intestacy laws, who were illegitimate only because of the technical invalidity of the parent’s marriage, who had been acknowledged in writing by the father, who had been declared to be the father’s by a court decision, or who had been held entitled to the father’s support by a court. Illegitimate children not covered by these presumptions had to establish that they were living with the insured parent or were being supported by him when the parent died. According to the Court, all the presumptions constituted an administrative convenience, which was a permissible device because those illegitimate children who were entitled to benefits because they were in fact dependent would receive benefits upon proof of the fact and it was irrelevant that other children not dependent in fact also received benefits.1959


The first cases set the stage for the lack of consistency. Compare Levy v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 68 (1968), and Glona v. American Guar. & Liab. Ins. Co., 391 U.S. 73 (1968), invalidating laws that precluded wrongful death actions in cases involving the child or the mother when the child was illegitimate, in which scrutiny was strict, with Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532 (1971), involving intestate succession, in which scrutiny was rational basis, and Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164 (1972), involving a workers’ compensation statute distinguishing between legitimates and illegitimates, in which scrutiny was intermediate. back
Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495, 503–06 (1976); Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762, 766–67 (1977); Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. 259, 265 (1978). Scrutiny in previous cases had ranged from negligible, Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532 (1971), to something approaching strictness, Jiminez v. Weinberger, 417 U.S. 628, 631–632 (1974). Mathews itself illustrates the uncertainty of statement, suggesting at one point that the Labine standard may be appropriate, 401 U.S. at 506, and at another that the standard appropriate to sex classifications is to be used, id. at 510, while observing a few pages earlier that illegitimacy is entitled to less exacting scrutiny than either race or sex. Id. at 506. Trimble settles on intermediate scrutiny but does not assess the relationship between its standard and the sex classification standard. See Parham v. Hughes, 441 U.S. 347 (1979), and Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1979) (both cases involving classifications reflecting both sex and illegitimacy interests). back
The major inconsistency arises from three 5-to-4 decisions. Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532 (1971), was largely overruled by Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762 (1977), which itself was substantially limited by Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. 259 (1978). Justice Powell was the swing vote for different disposition of the latter two cases. Thus, while four Justices argued for stricter scrutiny and usually invalidation of such classifications, Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. at 277 (Justices Brennan, White, Marshall, and Stevens dissenting), and four favor relaxed scrutiny and usually sustaining the classifications, Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. at 776, 777 (Chief Justice Burger and Justices Stewart, Blackmun, and Rehnquist dissenting), Justice Powell applied his own intermediate scrutiny and selectively voided and sustained. See Lalli v. Lalli, supra (plurality opinion by Justice Powell). back
A classification that absolutely distinguishes between legitimates and illegitimates is not alone subject to such review; one that distinguishes among classes of illegitimates is also subject to it, Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762, 774 (1977), as indeed are classifications based on other factors. E.g., Nyquist v. Mauclet, 432 U.S. 1, 9 (1977) (alienage). back
Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532 (1971). Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164, 170 (1972), had confined the analysis of Labine to the area of state inheritance laws in expanding review of illegitimacy classifications. back
430 U.S. 762 (1977). Chief Justice Burger and Justices Stewart, Blackmun, and Rehnquist dissented, finding the statute “constitutionally indistinguishable” from the one sustained in Labine. Id. at 776. Justice Rehnquist also dissented separately. Id. at 777. back
430 U.S. at 768–70. Although this purpose had been alluded to in Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532, 538 (1971), it was rejected as a justification in Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164, 173, 175 (1972). Visiting consequences upon the parent appears to be permissible. Parham v. Hughes, 441 U.S. 347, 352–53 (1979). back
Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762, 774–76 (1977). The Court cited the failure of the state court to rely on this purpose and its own examination of the statute. back
430 U.S. at 773–74. This justification had been prominent in Labine v. Vincent, 401 U.S. 532, 539 (1971), and its absence had been deemed critical in Weber v. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., 406 U.S. 164, 170–71 (1972). The Trimble Court thought this approach “somewhat of an analytical anomaly” and disapproved it. However, the degree to which one could conform to the statute’s requirements and the reasonableness of those requirements in relation to a legitimate purpose are prominent in Justice Powell’s reasoning in subsequent cases. Lalli v. Lalli, 439 U.S. 259, 266–74 (1978); Parham v. Hughes, 441 U.S. 347, 359 (1979) (concurring). See also Nyquist v. Mauclet, 432 U.S. 1 (1977) (alienage); Mississippi Univ. for Women v. Hogan, 458 U.S. 718, 723 n.8 (1982) (sex); and compare id. at 736 (Justice Powell dissenting). back
Trimble v. Gordon, 430 U.S. 762, 770–73 (1977). The result is in effect a balancing one, the means-ends relationship must be a substantial one in terms of the advantages of the classification as compared to the harms of the classification means. Justice Rehnquist’s dissent is especially critical of this approach. Id. at 777, 781–86. Also not interfering with orderly administration of estates is application of Trimble in a probate proceeding ongoing at the time Trimble was decided; the fact that the death had occurred prior to Trimble was irrelevant. Reed v. Campbell, 476 U.S. 852 (1986). back
439 U.S. 259 (1978). The four Trimble dissenters joined Justice Powell in the result, although only two joined his opinion. Justices Blackmun and Rehnquist concurred because they thought Trimble wrongly decided and ripe for overruling. Id. at 276. The four dissenters, who had joined the Trimble majority with Justice Powell, thought the two cases were indistinguishable. Id. at 277. back
Illustrating the difficulty are two cases in which the fathers of illegitimate children challenged statutes treating them differently than mothers of such children were treated. In Parham v. Hughes, 441 U.S. 347 (1979), the majority viewed the distinction as a gender-based one rather than as an illegitimacy classification and sustained a bar to a wrongful death action by the father of an illegitimate child who had not legitimated him; in Caban v. Mohammed, 441 U.S. 380 (1980), again viewing the distinction as a gender-based one, the majority voided a state law permitting the mother but not the father of an illegitimate child to block his adoption by refusing to consent. Both decisions were 5-to-4. back
Gomez v. Perez, 409 U.S. 535, 538 (1978) (emphasis added). Following the decision, Texas authorized illegitimate children to obtain support from their fathers. But the legislature required as a first step that paternity must be judicially determined, and imposed a limitations period within which suit must be brought of one year from birth of the child. If suit is not brought within that period the child could never obtain support at any age from his father. No limitation was imposed on the opportunity of a natural child to seek support, up to age 18. In Mills v. Habluetzel, 456 U.S. 91 (1982), the Court invalidated the one-year limitation. Although a state has an interest in avoiding stale or fraudulent claims, the limit must not be so brief as to deny such children a reasonable opportunity to show paternity. Similarly, a 2-year statute of limitations on paternity and support actions was held to deny equal protection to illegitimates in Pickett v. Brown, 462 U.S. 1 (1983), and a 6-year limit was struck down in Clark v. Jeter, 486 U.S. 456 (1988). In both cases the Court pointed to the fact that increasingly sophisticated genetic tests are minimizing the “lurking problems with respect to proof of paternity” referred to in Gomez, 409 U.S. at 538. Also, the state’s interest in imposing the 2-year limit was undercut by exceptions (e.g., for illegitimates receiving public assistance), and by different treatment for minors generally; similarly, the importance of imposing a 6-year limit was belied by that state’s more recent enactment of a non-retroactive 18-year limit for paternity and support actions. back
Jiminez v. Weinberger, 417 U.S. 628 (1974). But cf. Califano v. Boles, 443 U.S. 282 (1979). See also New Jersey Welfare Rights Org. v. Cahill, 411 U.S. 619 (1973) (limiting welfare assistance to households in which parents are ceremonially married and the children are legitimate or adopted denied illegitimate children equal protection); Richardson v. Davis, 409 U.S. 1069 (1972), aff ’g 342 F. Supp. 588 (D. Conn.) (3-judge court), and Richardson v. Griffin, 409 U.S. 1069 (1972), aff ’g 346 F. Supp. 1226 (D. Md.) (3-judge court) (Social Security provision entitling illegitimate children to monthly benefit payments only to extent that payments to widow and legitimate children do not exhaust benefits allowed by law denies illegitimates equal protection). back
Mathews v. Lucas, 427 U.S. 495 (1976). It can be seen that the only difference between Jiminez and Lucas is that in the former the Court viewed the benefits as owing to all children and not just to dependents, while in the latter the benefits were viewed as owing only to dependents and not to all children. But it is not clear that in either case the purpose determined to underlie the provision of benefits was compelled by either statutory language or legislative history. For a particularly good illustration of the difference such a determination of purpose can make and the way the majority and dissent in a 5-to-4 decision read the purpose differently, see Califano v. Boles, 443 U.S. 282 (1979). back