Deathbed marriages can be the ultimate weapon for those looking to prey on the elderly. In Florida you can marry someone minutes before their death and automatically vest into the right to live in the decedent’s homestead residence rent-free for the rest of your life, a 50%-100% share of the decedent’s estate under Florida’s intestacy statute or pretermitted spouse statute, or at the very least a 30% share of the decedent’s estate under Florida’s elective share statute.

F.S. 732.805 is a dramatic change from existing Florida law. For the first time in state history a decedent’s heirs have legal standing to challenge a deathbed marriage on the grounds of fraud, duress or undue influence.

What may come as a shock to most lawyers is that under Florida common law heirs are stopped cold on a per se basis from challenging deathbed marriages — no matter how ugly the circumstances may be. This, by the way, is the traditional rule applicable in most U.S. jurisdictions (see How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Days: Deathbed Marriages in America).

Efforts have been under way since 2008 aimed at closing this loophole [click here], culminating in 2010 with the creation of F.S. 732.805. This statute is a dramatic change from existing Florida law. For the first time in state history a decedent’s heirs will have legal standing to challenge a deathbed marriage on the grounds of fraud, duress or undue influence.

Florida probate lawyers would do well to familiarize themselves with F.S. 732.805; and for those of you looking for a little help on that front, you’ll want to check out this 2008 Bar-committee White Paper and the 2010 Florida Senate Bill Analysis covering the new statute. Here’s an excerpt from the Senate Bill Analysis:

The bill creates s. 732.805, F.S., which provides that a surviving spouse found to have procured a marriage to the decedent by fraud, duress, or undue influence is not entitled to certain rights or benefits that inure solely by virtue of the marriage or the person’s status as surviving spouse, unless the marriage is subsequently ratified. Specifically, the surviving spouse is not entitled to the following:

[1]  Any rights or benefits under the Florida Probate Code, including entitlement to elective share or family allowance; preference in appointment as personal representative; inheritance by intestacy, homestead, or exempt property; or inheritance as a pretermitted spouse.

[2]  Any rights or benefits under a bond, life insurance policy, or other contractual arrangement if the decedent is the principal obligee or the person upon whose life the policy is issued, unless the surviving spouse is provided for by name in the bond, life insurance policy, or other contractual arrangement.

[3]  Any rights or benefits under a will, trust, or power of appointment, unless the surviving spouse is provided for by name in the document.

[4]  Any immunity from the presumption of undue influence that a surviving spouse may have under state law.

If the surviving spouse is found to have procured the marriage by fraud, duress, or undue influence, then any of the above rights or benefits that would have passed solely to the surviving spouse by virtue of the marriage shall pass as if the spouse has predeceased the decedent.

Any interested person may bring a challenge to a surviving spouse’s rights as a defense, objection, or cause of action. The contestant has the burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the marriage was procured by fraud, duress, or undue influence. If the surviving spouse raises ratification as a defense, the spouse has the burden of establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence, the subsequent ratification by both parties. A challenge made under this section must be commenced within four years after the decedent’s death, unless the claim is barred sooner by adjudication, estoppels, or a provision of the Florida Probate Code or Florida Probate Rules.