The Georgia Supreme Court has overturned a local court’s ruling that the estate of one of Hall County’s biggest landowners should not be shared with a woman who claims she is a daughter born out of wedlock.
In a 5-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled Monday against Regina Gordon Todd’s claim that she was entitled to a part of John E. “Sonny” Buffington’s inheritance.
And an attorney for Buffington’s two other daughters, Beth Buffington Hood and Ginger Buffington Folger, said the women were pleased with the higher court’s ruling and are looking forward to completing the execution of Sonny Buffington’s will nearly four years after his death.
“We think the Supreme Court got it right,” attorney Wade Watson III said.
Buffington died in 2006 at age 64 from complications following heart surgery. He owned a highway construction company and farmed about 2,000 acres in East Hall.
In his will, signed in a hospital room in August 2006, Buffington wrote, “I have two living children, Beth Buffington Hood and Ginger Buffington Folger.” They are named as the co-executors of the estate and trustees of the trusts created for them.
The will states that inheritance is left to “my children surviving me,” with a trust for “each and every child of mine.”
In a 2006 complaint filed in Hall County Probate Court, Todd claimed to be Buffington’s biological daughter and said she, too, was entitled to part of the estate.
Her lawyers used a 1994 deposition taken during Buffington’s 1994 divorce in which he testified that he and Peggy Marlow — later Peggy Gordon — conceived a child during Sonny Buffington’s marriage to Linda Buffington. Buffington also said in the deposition that he provided financial support for Todd, including paying for her college.
Hood and Folger, who said Todd had no claim to the estate, filed a motion for summary judgment, and requested that Todd’s claims be dismissed.
Hall County Probate Court Judge Patti Cornett denied their motion, deciding a hearing on the evidence should be held. Hood and Folger then appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.
In a majority decision by the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote that the probate court was wrong to rule a hearing was necessary.
“Though there may be a genuine issue of fact as to Todd’s status as Buffington’s daughter, we conclude that resolution of this issue is unnecessary,” Hunstein wrote in the opinion. “The will clearly and unambiguously expresses Buffington’s intent that only Hood and Folger, the daughters born of his marriage, share as children.”
By defining “children” in the will as “lawful blood descendents,” Hunstein wrote, “Buffington also demonstrated his intent that his child born out of wedlock not be included as a beneficiary under his will.”
In the dissent, Justice P. Harris Hines and Justice Hugh Thompson argued that Buffington had a good relationship with Todd and named her as beneficiary of two life insurance policies and there is “a genuine issue of material fact regarding her being Buffington’s daughter.”
The dissent said the ruling “takes a giant step backwards in the development of the law in regard to the rights of biological children born without the benefit of marriage.”
Todd may file a motion for reconsideration in the next 10 days. An attorney for Todd did not return a call seeking comment.