Court Annuls Marriage After Death of “Spouse”

JANUARY 20, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 3

Cynthia Madsen (not her real name) was, according to her doctor, already showing signs of dementia in 2007. In fact, her doctor wrote that she was not able to manage her own financial affairs. By mid-2009, her condition had worsened; her doctor wrote that she could not make decisions in her own best interests, and that her children should seek a guardianship because there was danger that someone might try to take advantage of her.

No guardianship or conservatorship proceeding was initiated, though — Cynthia continued to live at home with the assistance of a caregiver and a live-in friend named Patrick. In 2011 — almost two years after her doctor reported that Cynthia could make no decisions on her own — Patrick asked Cynthia’s minister to officiate as he and Cynthia got married. The minister refused, saying he did not believe Cynthia was competent to make such a life decision.

Things began to accelerate a few months later. Cynthia was admitted to the hospital . Cynthia’s daughter filed a guardianship and conservatorship proceeding. In the course of that proceeding, a court-appointed investigator interviewed Cynthia and wrote that she was incapacitated; the investigator recommended that a full guardian and conservator should be appointed. The next day, Patrick and Cynthia were married. Two days after that, Cynthia’s daughter was appointed as her temporary guardian and conservator, and moved her to a care facility.

As guardian and conservator, Cynthia’s daughter filed a petition to dissolve the marriage or, in the alternative, to annul it. The difference is important — dissolution of the marriage (what most of us still refer to as “divorce,” though the terminology changed decades ago) recognizes that the married couple are unhappy in the marriage, or that at least one of them believes the marriage is irretrievably broken. Annulment, on the other hand, recognizes that the marriage was never valid in the first place.

While the dissolution/annulment case was pending, Cynthia died. The divorce court promptly dismissed the dissolution part of the petition — a divorce can not be granted after the death of one spouse, since the marriage is, in a sense, dissolved by the death. But the annulment proceeding continued. Ultimately, the court ruled that Cynthia was incompetent to enter into a marriage contract, and so the marriage never was effective. The annulment was granted.

The Arizona Court of Appeals upheld the annulment. It is irrelevant, ruled the judges, that Patrick claimed that neither he nor Cynthia was unhappy in the marriage. It is irrelevant that Cynthia died while the case was pending. In this case, there was clear evidence that Cynthia did not understand the nature and significance of the marriage ceremony, and the trial judge’s determination that there was no effective marriage was allowed to stand. Savittieri v. Williams, January 2, 2014.

At Elder Law Issues we have written about this question before. In October of last year we reported on a Wisconsin case in which an annulment proceeding was allowed to continue after the death of the incompetent “spouse.” At the time we noted that we had not seen Arizona cases with the same facts, but we predicted that the result would likely be the same in Arizona. The Savittieri case shows that we predicted correctly.

It is worth noting that the result in this new Arizona case did not depend on the fact that a guardian and conservator was appointed almost immediately after the “marriage” ceremony. The fact of guardianship and conservatorship, by themselves, would probably not be enough to invalidate the marriage. As we have previously noted (this time citing a Missouri case with illustrative facts), the question is not whether a guardian or conservator was, or could be, appointed — it is whether the person understood the nature of the marriage and had mental capacity to enter into the marital contract itself. Cynthia did not — the guardianship and conservatorship were based on that incapacity, but did not necessarily prove it.

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