Fans of football in general, but more particularly fans of the West Virginia University Mountaineers and the Cincinnati Bengals, mourn the untimely loss of Chris Henry on December 17, 2009. He was just twenty-six (26) years of age. Henry had a stellar career as a wide receiver at West Virginia University and was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the third (3rd) round of the 2005 draft. He had some notable off-the-field problems and at least five (5) legal-related incidents but was seemingly back on track with both his football career and life when he sustained an injury to his forearm in mid-season of 2009. During the Cincinnati-Baltimore game, Chris sustained a fracture to his left forearm and was thereafter placed on the “injured reserve” list.
On the evening of Wednesday, December 16, 2009, there was an incident described as a “domestic dispute” involving Henry and his fiancé, Loleini Tonga. Reports say that Ms. Tonga was attempting to leave a residence in North Carolina when Henry jumped into the bed of the pick-up truck she was driving. Henry was later thrown from the bed of the truck. He sustained massive head injuries and died the next morning.
Many legal questions remain. I shall address them in chronological order:
- It will be most important to determine if Chris Henry had a Last Will and Testament or any other estate planning documents to protect Loleini Tonga and their children. Most persons at the age of twenty-six (26) believe they are invincible and do not need to have estate planning documents in place.
- His fiancé, Loleini Tonga, has no legal rights to anything in his estate, absent a Will, as she was not married to Chris Henry at the time of his death. As a fiancé of Chris Henry, she has no rights to inherit from his estate unless he provided for her in a Will or a Living Trust document.
- There are reported to be three (3) children that Chris Henry and his fiancé were raising; some news articles indicate that he was the father of only two of them. If Chris Henry is the biological Father of the children, had paternity been established? Loleini Tonga would not be eligible to receive Social Security benefits on behalf of the children until or unless paternity is established. And, now that Chris Henry is deceased, his fiancé may have to try to establish paternity of the three (3) children through the appropriate Juvenile Court in order to seek Social Security benefits on their behalf. If the children are not born as issue of Chris Henry and Ms. Tonga’s relationship, his estate would not be responsible for them unless Henry had estate planning documents in place to address that issue. More specifically, his will could have specified who he would designate to serve as guardian of the person and/or estate of any minor children he might leave at the time of his death. His will or trust could also have named a trustee to manage assets on his children’s behalf until they attained an appropriate age to take control themselves over the funds.
- If children are born out of wedlock, take immediate steps to establish paternity. Parents cannot expect to receive child support benefits or Social Security benefits unless paternity is established and the biological father of the child or children has been identified and verified by Court Order. Just signing the Birth Certificate is not enough to establish paternity in the State of Ohio.
- If you are a man living in Ohio and believe that you may have impregnated a woman to whom you are not married, then you should consider registering with the Ohio Putative Father Registry. This is an important step toward establishing paternity and protecting your rights if the mother should decide to put the child up for adoption. Be sure to register before the child is a month old. Click here to learn more about the Registry and to link to the form that would need to be completed.
- Regardless of your age, have a Last Will and Testament prepared to establish who shall inherit from you and to establish who shall be responsible for your minor children in the event of your premature demise. In Ohio, anyone who is mentally competent over the age of eighteen (18) years old can execute a Will.
- These recommendations are especially important if the fiancé/father is wealthy. Loleini Tonga and the three (3) children she and Chris Henry were raising may now be in legal “limbo” until it is determined whether or not Chris provided for them in a Last Will and Testament (or other Trust documents) and if the paternity of the children in question had been legally established.
As a graduate of West Virginia University and a Bengal fan, I was personally saddened by his death. Coach Bill Stewart said, “Once a Mountaineer, always a Mountaineer … Chris was a big part of our success during his time here. For me, he was a real joy to be around on a daily basis. He came to work and loved to play football.” Bengal teammate Chad Ochocinco said, “My grandma always says you never question the man upstairs on decisions he makes. Everyone makes mistakes, but I don’t see how Chris was supposed to go already, especially when he was on the right path.”
His family shared last week that Chris is helping save the lives of others through organ donation. Life Center, a group that encourages and facilitates organ donation, said that Henry was an organ and cornea donor and that his organs were donated to at least five people. “When it’s a high-profile person or high-profile case, this really brings awareness that, wow, lives were saved as a result of something so tragic,” said Andi Johnson, a representative of Life Center. If you are interested in more information on tissue and organ donation in Ohio, visit Donate Life Ohio.
Remember, that each of us needs to have a plan and properly drawn estate planning documents which include how our assets should be distributed and whom we would want to raise our minor children in the event we were not able to do so. Regardless of our age or physical prowess, none of us are “bullet proof.” It is very important to take all the appropriate steps to protect our loved ones and family members!
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Anne Shale is of counsel to Dayton, Ohio, law firm, Holzfaster, Cecil, McKnight & Mues. She is a former registered nurse and concentrates her practice in Family Law and Divorce cases.