Estate Plan For Benefit Of “Confidential” Wife Upheld

OCTOBER 5 , 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 56

Legal issues confronted by celebrities are, of course, often fodder for tabloids, late-night television and casual gossip. They also often reveal unusual legal problems, since celebrities tend to lead lives that are more complex than those of their fans. Comedian Richard Pryor’s death in 2005 is a case in point. His estate involved at least three interesting legal issues, as described in a recent California Court of Appeals decision.

Mr. Pryor was married to Jennifer Lee Pryor in 1981; they divorced in 1982. Shortly after that, Mr. Pryor was diagnosed as suffering from multiple sclerosis. Almost twenty years (and, for Mr. Pryor, two intervening marriages, both to the same woman) later, the couple remarried—after Jennifer Pryor had been providing care to Mr. Pryor for a seven-year period.

The second marriage between Richard and Jennifer Pryor raises the first interesting legal issue. The marriage was by a “confidential marriage license,” an unusual alternative available in California. This type of marriage somewhat resembles the old common-law marriage concept, except that it involves a formal marriage certificate. The couple must swear that they live together as a married couple, but the certificate, once issued, can not be retrieved from public records except by the husband, wife or court order. Mr. Pryor apparently did not tell his family that he and Mrs. Pryor had remarried.

When Mr. Pryor died in 2005, his daughter Elizabeth Pryor still did not know that he had been legally married. Mr. Pryor’s estate plan left a significant share of his assets to Mrs. Pryor, and daughter Elizabeth filed an action to set aside those gifts.

Elizabeth Pryor’s lawsuit relied on another unusual California statute, which automatically invalidates gifts given to care custodians unless certain additional steps are taken. In other states there may sometimes be a presumption of invalidity when gifts are made to caretakers, but California’s statute is much more stringent. There is, however, an exception for gifts made to a spouse, and Mrs. Pryor produced the marriage certificate to show that the exception applied in her case.

Elizabeth Pryor then sought to annul the confidential marriage. She argued that Mrs. Pryor had acted fraudulently in securing the marriage, and that she should be able to seek the annulment as her father’s “successor in interest.”

The trial judge dismissed her annulment petition and ruled against her on the merits in the action to set aside the transfers. The California Court of Appeals upheld both judgments, ruling in two companion appeals that (1) an annulment proceeding can only be brought by a spouse, and can not be pursued after one spouse’s death, and (2) consequently, Elizabeth Pryor’s claims against Jennifer Pryor involving transfers to a caregiver must fail. Pryor v. Pryor and Estate of Pryor v. Pryor, September 29, 2009.

For those of us who grew up laughing at Mr. Pryor’s regular television comedy appearances, and who enjoyed Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, his decline and death were especially tragic. Irony, one of the core components of good comedy, abounded in his life and death. Two good Richard Pyror lines seem particularly apt:

“I believe in the institution of marriage, and I intend to keep trying until I get it right.” (Mr. Pryor was married seven times, though only to five different women.)

“Marriage is really tough because you have to deal with feelings … and lawyers.”

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