Long-Time Companion Is Not Entitled To Share of Estate

APRIL 29, 2002 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 44
Sam Vires and Shirley Schulze were romantically involved for three decades and even lived together for most of the last fifteen years of their relationship. When Mr. Vires died in 1997, however, his will left nothing to Ms. Schulze.

Mr. Vires’ will was written in 1984, eight years after he divorced his wife and sixteen years after his affair with Ms. Schulze began. Nonetheless, that will left his estate to his three sons and his ex-wife in four equal shares, and made no provision for his long-time partner and lover.

Ms. Schulze first sought a share of Mr. Vires’ estate by arguing that they were actually married. Four years before his death, Mr. Vires and Ms. Schulze had a local judge and friend perform an impromptu “wedding” ceremony during a social event at the yacht club where they were all members. After that Mr. Vires even bought Ms. Schulze an “anniversary” ring—but the couple never obtained or filed a marriage license to formalize the faux wedding. Tennessee, where the couple lived, does not recognize “common-law” marriages.

Since there was never an effective wedding Ms. Schulze was not Mr. Vires’ surviving wife, and the probate court threw out her claim to a share of his estate. Ms. Schulze had still another theory, however—she argued that she should be compensated for taking care of Mr. Vires during the last year of his life.

Mr. Vires had become seriously ill about sixteen months before his death, and required full-time care for the entire period. Ms. Schulze stayed with him, prepared his meals, took care of his medications, helped him dress and groom himself and transported him back and forth to doctors appointments and the hospital. As his condition worsened she took care of his basic hygiene, even assisting him to go to the bathroom and, nearer the end of his life, to use a bedpan.

Ms. Schulze was not the only one providing care for Mr. Vires. She also hired caretakers for respite care and to help when the burden became too difficult. Those caretakers were paid between $7 and $10 per hour; Ms. Schulze received no salary for her part in taking care of her companion.

Ms. Schulze argued that she should receive compensation for her caretaking; she suggested $600,000, which is about what she would have received if she had in fact been married to Mr. Vires. The probate court, however, found that she had provided the care because the couple was close, rather than in anticipation of getting paid, and her claim for payment was denied. Ms. Schulze appealed.

The Tennessee Court of Appeals agreed with the probate court, and upheld the denial of her claim for services. Because of the closeness of their relationship, ruled the court, there was a presumption that she provided her services as caretaker gratuitously. The testimony of several friends that Mr. Vires always meant to “take care of her” did not overcome that presumption. In Re Estate of Vires, April 10, 2002.

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