Texas high court denies woman's claim to Kenedy estate

Steve Korris Apr. 22, 2010, 3:33am

The Main House of the Kenedy Ranch

AUSTIN – Letting the dead rest, the Supreme Court of Texas blocked a woman's bid to exhume the corpse of a man she claimed as her father.

Anna Fernandez had secured an order for DNA tests on the remains of John G. Kenedy Jr., about 60 years after burial, but the justices voided the order on April 16.

Justice Paul Green wrote that Fernandez lacked standing and Kenedy County Probate Court Judge Guy Herman lacked jurisdiction.

Green wrote that "allowing exhumation of Kenedy's body when Fernandez is barred from recovery, regardless of whether she is actually Kenedy's biological child, is an abuse of discretion."

John G. Kenedy Jr. was heir to the legendary 400,000-acre Kenedy ranch south of Kingsville.

Justice Green upheld orders finding Kenedy died without heirs, passing his property to his wife. Eventually his sister, Sarita Kenedy East, bequeathed the vast fortune to a foundation and charitable trust which support the Catholic church.

The estate is valued somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion.

Fernandez, now 84, is the daughter of a Mexican American woman who worked for Kenedy as a teenage maid in the 1920s.

She filed a lawsuit claiming to be Kenedy's daughter from an illicit affair between the teenager and the rancher.

Fernandez wanted Kenedy's body exhumed so she could obtain DNA and prove her paternity. The justices heard oral arguments on exhumation in 2005, but couldn't reach a decision until they decided other appeals.

They rolled out three decisions at once, with Green writing all three.

The other two upheld district court orders from 1975 and 1978, rejecting Fernandez's claim on the estate of Sarita Kenedy East.

Green wrote that East made a will in 1960, added a codicil in 1961, and died the same year.

He wrote that probate court closed the estate in 1987 and Fernandez filed a bill of review in 2003.

"Under any conceivable accrual date, the four year statute of limitations ran well before Fernandez first asserted claims to the East estate," he wrote.

"The parties do not dispute that East's 1960 will and second codicil disposed of all her property or that the estate was fully administered and closed decades ago," he wrote.

Fernandez's lawyers argued that the statute of limitations should not apply because the matter of Kenedy's paternity was not known until her mother let the secret slip in 2000 shortly before she died.

Green corrected 13th District appeals judges in Corpus Christi, who assigned dominant jurisdiction to probate court rather than district court.

He wrote that "we see no possibility of Fernandez being able to establish that East died intestate, which would be necessary for the probate court to assert jurisdiction."

That set up the decision to let Kenedy rest, overturning probate judge Herman and 13th District judges.

Green wrote that "the original final judgments rendered by the district court are binding on Fernandez and preclude her from recovering as a Kennedy heir."

He wrote that Herman lacked jurisdiction to enter any order other than to dismiss.

"Fernandez has no viable claim for an inheritance recovery and thus has no standing to seek exhumation for genetic testing," he wrote.

Mike Hatchell, Jorge Rangel, Jon Brooks, Richard Leshin, Charles Watson Jr., Susan Kidwell, Macey Stokes, Jaime Santiago, John

Porter, Amy Hefley and Joseph Knight represented the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Memorial Foundation.

Buster Adami Jr., Tony Canales, Stephen Helman, Thomas Crofts Jr., Jacqueline Stroh and Jeffrey Knebel represented the John G. Kenedy Jr. Charitable Trust.

Joseph Dorsey, Sam Westergren, Mark Schwartz, Michele Mobley, Michael McCrea, Deborah Hankinson, Elana Einhorn, Richard Hogan, Jennifer Hogan and Marcos Ronquillo represented Fernandez.

Exxon Mobil, Frost Bank, the Missionary Oblate Fathers of Texas, the state of Texas and Pablo Suess all intervened in the appeals.

Marilyn Tennissen contributed to this article.

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