Smith v. Smith, — So.3d —-, 2016 WL 803625 (Fla. 4th DCA March 2, 2016) (reversed on appeal)

As Bette Davis once said, getting old ain’t for sissies. But it’s a whole lot easier if you’re married.

And while there’s all sorts of good research proving that loneliness kills (see here), the evidence is just as clear that a happy marriage — especially for the elderly — can save your life. As reported in How marriage can save your life:

In a vast array of scientific studies, over and over again, a happy union has been shown to benefit virtually every system of the body. It reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke. It triples a patient’s survival after bypass surgery. It lowers production of stress hormones, and boosts immune response. Married people are also less likely to drink and smoke. It’s accepted wisdom that one spouse will often die soon after the another; studies have confirmed this “widowhood effect.” . . .

Quite simply, if we could package it in a pill, marriage would qualify as a wonder drug. Finding a way to mimic the benefits of marriage could well be the most critical health challenge of our time.

Aside from all the health benefits of being married, whom we marry and when we marry them are decisions that are at the very core of our sense of autonomy and identity as adults. As noted by Judge Warner’s strong dissent in the linked-to case above:

The right to marry is a fundamental right, protected by the United States Constitution. See Obergefell v. Hodges, ––– U.S. ––––, ––––, 135 S.Ct. 2584, 2598, 192 L.Ed.2d 609 (2015):

Choices about marriage shape an individual’s destiny. As the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has explained, because “it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.”

Id. at 2599 (quoting Goodridge v. Dep’t of Pub. Health, 440 Mass. 309, 798 N.E.2d 941, 955 (2003)).

It’s against this backdrop that the hotly contested Smith Guardianship has played out for years. At the center of this story is a couple that met late in life, fell in love, and married. What they didn’t expect were the often heart-wrenching complications that can come up when our private lives become the subject of public decision making in a contest guardianship proceeding.

Case Study:

Martinez and Smith first met each other in 2008, while Smith was still married to his first wife. Martinez and Smith vacationed together and eventually moved in together. The couple became engaged in 2009. Smith wrote letters to Martinez declaring his love and affection. He also executed a designation of health care surrogate and living will declaration, designating Martinez as his health care surrogate, as well as giving her power of attorney. He commenced divorce proceedings against his first wife.

In January 2010 Smith was involved in an automobile accident in which he suffered head trauma. As a result, his daughter filed a petition to appoint a guardian of the person and property for Smith. After the hearing on incompetency, the court found that Smith had “lessening of some cognitive functions possibly due to dementia that make him incapacitated, the nature and scope being that he is unable to manage his property and to contract.” The court also specifically found that “there is no incapacity on the part of J. Alan Smith that would warrant a guardian of a person.” Thus, the only rights which the court removed from Smith were the right to contract and to manage his finances.

For a bit of color commentary on the backstory to this case, you’ll want to read the reporting done by the Palm Beach Post (yay for newspapers!) in How professional guardian got marriage annulled:

Glenda Martinez-Smith found the love of her life as a senior citizen.

Martinez-Smith, 68, said she felt like she hit the lottery when she met retired Army Col. J. Alan Smith of Boynton Beach through a senior dating website. “It was like a fairy tale,” she recalls.

But the retired school teacher said their bliss was destroyed when a judge found her husband incapacitated after a car crash and appointed a professional guardian.

With the blessing of two Palm Beach County circuit court judges, the guardian put Smith, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury, in a nursing home, got Martinez-Smith banned from ever seeing him again and annulled the couple’s marriage.

“That was the most horrible day of my life, the day my marriage was annulled,” she said.

Besides annulling her marriage, one judge threatned her with arrest and another kicked her out of court. Still, Martinez-Smith persevered, winning appeal after appeal and wresting control back from the professional guardian.

While Martinez may have ultimately prevailed in wresting control of the guardianship, the 4th DCA delivered a crushing setback on the issue that probably meant most to Martinez personally: her marriage to Smith. According to the 4th DCA, it simply never happened.

No right to contract = right to marry is automatically “subject to court approval”:

The trial judge never said anything about taking away Smith’s right to marry, but in a way that’s effectively what happened when he took away Smith’s right to contract. Under F.S. 744.3215(2)(a), once you lose your right to contract — your right to marry is automatically “subject to court approval”. Here’s the key text of the statute:

(2) Rights that may be removed from a person by an order determining incapacity but not delegated to a guardian include the right:
(a) To marry. If the right to enter into a contract has been removed, the right to marry is subject to court approval.

It’s this statutory “if-then” causal link that’s at the heart of this appeal. It was clearly an unintended consequence of the trial judge’s limited guardianship ruling. As the trial judge himself stated, he certainly thought Smith retained the right to marry after his guardianship ruling. Which is what Smith and Martinez did in 2011. Here’s what the trial judge had to say about Smith’s post-guardianship marriage to Martinez:

Mr. Smith is married, apparently to Ms. Martinez, . . . that right was not removed, and . . . she is able to provide companionship and companion care . . . Now for someone like Mr. Smith, it’s great that he has good doctors, good nurses, and people like that from a medical point of view, but that is not substitute [sic] for the type of personal ability that a spouse has to provide companion care to their spouse. Like it or not . . . she is his spouse, she certainly is hands-on and it is often when a spouse is in an impaired condition like that one of the real benefits, even to someone in Mr. Smith’s condition, is to still see his spouse, be able to know she’s there and benefit from that . . .

Practice tip: even if you and your trial judge are in agreement, if you’re wrong on the law you don’t get a pass if a new judge takes over or your case gets challenged on appeal. Which is exactly what happened in this case.

When a new judge took over the case and ruled — oops! — Smith’s 2011 marriage to Martinez was void, the 4th DCA agreed. And because the marriage was void, it can’t be ratified (i.e., made legal) by an after-the-fact court ruling. As far as the law’s concerned the 2011 “marriage” never happened. Here’s how the 4th DCA summed up its ruling:

A marriage entered into by a person with no right to marry is void. See Kuehmsted v. Turnwall, 103 Fla. 1180, 138 So. 775, 777–78 (1932) (marriage entered into by person lacking mental capacity to consent is void); Dandy v. Dandy, 234 So.2d 728, 730 (Fla. 1st DCA 1970) (marriage between parties was void because one of the parties was still legally married to another and thus lacked the right to marry again). Thus, it follows that in order to enter into a valid marriage, an incapacitated person who has had his or her right to contract removed must first ask the court to approve his or her right to marry.

Based on the foregoing, the court’s interpretation of section 744.3215(2)(a) was correct: at the time the Ward and Appellant married, the Ward had no right to marry as he had not obtained court approval. Therefore, the trial court correctly determined that the marriage was void.[FN1]

[FN1] As the marriage was void from the inception, Appellant’s argument that the court “ratified” the marriage by acknowledging it at the December 18, 2012 hearing is without merit. A void marriage, in legal contemplation, has never existed and, therefore, cannot be ratified. See, e.g., Arnelle v. Fisher, 647 So.2d 1047 (Fla. 5th DCA 1994) (discussing distinction between a void and voidable marriage).

So is this the end of the story? Maybe not. The 4th DCA’s certified this case for review by the Florida Supreme Court (see here).

Lesson learned?

There’s a good reason why estate planners do everything possible to make sure their clients can  privately manage their own affairs as they age. Our courts are overworked and underfunded (see here), which means they always need to be your choice of last resort. And even under the best of circumstances, the moment any of us steps into a courtroom, no matter how well meaning and professional everyone involved in that system might be, our private lives become matters of public adjudication. Which means that even though the judge and court-appointed guardians or court-appointed attorneys may all be “neutral” in the legal sense of that word, those same individuals can’t help but project their own — often unconscious (see here value judgments and biases on the people before them when deciding what’s in the “best interest” of an elderly ward.

Bottom line, when in doubt, stay out of court. Once you step into a courtroom, the law of unintended consequences looms large over everything. In this case Smith had executed two key documents: a power of attorney and a health-care surrogate designation; both identifying Martinez as the one person Smith wanted to be in charge of all of his finances and health-care decisions in the event of his disability. These estate-planning documents are specifically designed to keep people like Smith out of our guardianship courts. If these documents had been implemented as intended, Smith’s marriage to Martinez would likely have never become a matter of public adjudication. This case is a prime example of what can go wrong when good estate planning gets ignored in the often naive rush to get into court.