The materials distributed for the last meeting of the Florida Bar’s Probate & Trust Litigation Committee included a subcommittee report entitled Collateral Attack on the Validity of A Marriage after Death Based Upon Undue Influence [click here then scroll down to AGENDA ITEM 6].
The subcommittee report provides an excellent state-by-state survey of current law regarding challenges to deathbed marriages and is well worth reading. The report concludes with proposed legislation that would give a decedent’s heirs standing to challenge a deathbed marriage on the grounds of fraud, duress or undue influence. I think this is good public policy and the subcommittee members (John Moran, Bill Hennessey, Laura Sundberg, and Russ Snyder) should be commended for a job well done. Here’s the report’s conclusion and recommended statutory fix:
In sum, Florida follows the common law and majority rule which only allows void marriages to be challenged after death. In most instances, Florida courts have held that marriages procured by fraud, duress, and undue influence are merely voidable, affording potential heirs no ability to challenge a marriage after death. Given the extensive rights available to a surviving spouse, a wrongdoer can profit significantly by simply inducing or influencing an elderly person to enter into a marriage. The Subcommittee recommends that the full committee consider and discuss legislation to address this issue.
VII. Proposed Statute
Over the last several meetings, the Probate and Trust Litigation Committee discussed and debated a legislative change to permit a challenge to a marriage procured by fraud, duress, or undue influence. At the August 2, 2007 meeting in Palm Beach, a straw vote revealed that a majority of the Committee was in favor of working on a proposed legislative fix. Accordingly, the proposed statute set forth below would provide an avenue to attack a marriage on the basis of fraud, duress, or undue influence after the death of a party to the marriage. The proposed statute aims to narrowly focus on inheritance rights. The proposed statute also borrows from F.S. §732.802 (the slayer statute), F.S. §732.5165 (effect of fraud, duress, mistake, and undue influence), and F.S. §733.107 (burden of proof in contests; presumption of undue influence).
73X.XXXX. Challenge to marriage procured by fraud, duress, or undue influence
(1) An action to challenge a marriage may be maintained by any interested person after the death of the husband, wife, or both in any proceeding under chapters 731 through 736, 744, 747, and the Florida Probate Code, in which the fact of marriage may be material, either directly or indirectly.
(2) The scope of this section is limited to all inheritance rights or other benefits a surviving spouse or any other person may acquire as a result of the surviving spouse’s marriage to the decedent, including any rights or benefits acquired under chapters 731 through 736, 744, 747, and the Florida Probate Code.
(3) A marriage is void for all purposes under subsection (2) if it is procured by fraud, duress, or undue influence.
(4) In all proceedings contesting a marriage under this section, the contestant shall have the burden of establishing, by clear and convincing evidence, the grounds on which the marriage was procured by fraud, duress, or undue influence.
If after reading the linked-to subcommittee report you’re still not convinced that the proposed Florida legislation is a good thing, then you need to read a newly-published law journal article that advocates strongly for exactly the type of legislation being proposed here in Florida. As reported here in the Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog, Terry L. Turnipseed (Assistant Professor of Law, Syracuse University College of Law) has recently published his article entitled How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Days: Deathbed Marriages in America. Here’s the article’s abstract:
Should you be able to marry someone who has only days to live? If so, should the government award the surviving spouse the many property rights that ordinarily flow from marriage?
In almost every state, the only person allowed to challenge the validity of a marriage (or, by extension, the property consequences thereof) after the death of one of the spouses is the surviving spouse! Seems incredible, does it not? The expectant heirs of a dying man (or woman) who marries on his (or her) deathbed cannot challenge the marriage post-death. Ironically, the one person allowed to challenge is the only person who has absolutely no motivation to do so.
How did this rule come about? What, if anything, should we do to change it?
This article explores these and other related questions, including a proposed theoretical framework for a model act giving heirs and beneficiaries standing to sue in order to negate the property consequences that flow from marriage, depending on the level of mental capacity at the time of the marriage.
Individuals on their deathbeds have just as much right to marry as anyone, and if competent and under no duress, the parties to the marriage certainly should have protection under the law. Protection should be appropriately shaped to avoid harassment of widows and widowers.
However, I simply cannot see a valid argument for denying a decedent-spouse’s heirs (those who would take the decedent’s property if he or she died unmarried and intestate) and beneficiaries (those who would take under the decedent’s valid will, if any, absent a spousal election) the right to challenge the property consequences of a suspect marriage, especially when that challenge is based on traditional grounds that might naturally flow from a deathbed marriage.
Ironically, a decedent on their deathbed may not have the legal capacity to enter into a contract but can get married. It is only reasonable that these poor people and their heirs and beneficiaries should have state protection against a surviving spouse taking some or all of the decedent’s property. Protection of heirs and beneficiaries is necessary where a surviving spouse may have few legitimate motives for entering into a deathbed marriage, particularly in light of the surviving spouse’s ability to take some or all of the decedent’s property.
The current incentives are off kilter. A greedy potential spouse has every incentive to find a minister or officer of the law willing to marry them off to a wealthy sick person and no legal incentives not to try it. No matter how ugly the situation, a marriage becomes set in stone with no person other than the surviving spouse allowed standing to seek redress in a court of law upon the death of one of the spouses. Allowing, in an appropriate way, heirs and beneficiaries to challenge the property consequences of a suspect marriage puts in place the proper disincentives before attempting to take advantage of one of feeble mind and spirit.
If these property consequences are allowed to stand, victims will continue to abound in deathbed marriage situations where consent is lacking: the decedent, her family, and society generally. Just imagine how you would feel losing an expectancy in such circumstances.