Bigamous Spouse “Estopped” From Claiming Share of Estate

NOVEMBER 16, 1998 VOLUME 6, NUMBER 20

Jessie Lee Anderson died in California in 1996. Ms. Anderson had not prepared a will, and so her estate would pass to her heirs at law. Under California law as it applied to her circumstances, that would normally mean that half her estate would go to her family, and the other half to her surviving spouse.

Ms. Anderson’s marital history, however, was less than clear. In 1955, she had married Orange Pierson, who was now claiming half her estate. In 1958, Pierson and Anderson had separated; they had no children, and apparently neither ever filed for a divorce.

In 1978, Jessie Lee Anderson had married for a second time. On the application for a marriage license she signed (along with new husband Clarence Anderson), Ms. Anderson swore that she had gotten divorced in 1958 in San Francisco County, California. A later search of the County’s records, however, revealed that there was no such divorce.

During the fifteen years Jessie Lee and Clarence Anderson were married, they had no children. Mr. Anderson had died in 1983; Ms. Anderson never remarried.

For his part, Orange Pierson had also remarried after he and Ms. Anderson separated. He had lived with Daisy Lee Pierson since shortly after the separation, and he married her in 1993 (after having had five children together). Mr. Anderson’s marriage license application recited that he had never been married before. He claimed that he had made this “obviously false” statement because he and Ms. Anderson had been separated for 35 years and he didn’t want to embarrass anyone.

Ms. Anderson’s estate consisted primarily of her residence, purchased during Mr. Anderson’s life and paid for (at least partly) with his contributions to the community. Mr. Pierson now sought to recover half of that estate. He argued that both of their subsequent marriage were invalid, and that his marriage to Ms. Anderson continued despite the 38 years they had been separated.

The California Court of Appeals disagreed. The judges noted that Mr. Pierson had sworn under oath that he had never been married when it suited him to marry Daisy Lee Pierson, and decided that he could not choose to “blow hot and cold” on the question of the validity of his marriage. In legal terms, he was estopped from now asserting that he remained married to Ms. Anderson.

In reaching its conclusion, the court analogized to earlier cases it had decided. In one, for example, a woman questioned the validity of a foreign divorce after thirty years, despite the subsequent remarriage of her husband and his payment of alimony for the entire time. In that case, the California courts refused to permit the “wife” to “sleep on” her rights, waiting until her “husband’s” death to claim half the property he had accumulated with his new wife.

Mr. Pierson, for his part, also had precedent to cite. In another earlier California case, the court had ruled that a husband’s infidelity during his deceased wife’s lifetime did not preclude him from inheriting from her estate. But the Pierson/Anderson case, said the court, is different; “principles of equity,” they said, “demand that Pierson be estopped from asserting rights in decedent’s estate.”Estate of Anderson, December 23, 1997.

At least under Arizona law, Ms. Anderson could have minimized the problems with her estate quite simply. It is perfectly legal to disinherit spouses completely; if Ms. Anderson had written a will leaving nothing to Mr. Pierson the cost of contested court proceedings might have been avoided. Of course, we can not be certain whether Ms. Anderson genuinely believed that she had been divorced from Mr. Pierson, but assuming she knew that she had not, a simple will might have saved her estate many times its cost.

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