attempted marriage

Appointment of Guardian May Invalidate Attempted Marriage

Alan and Glenda were engaged. Tragically, Alan was in a 2010 automobile accident. He suffered a head injury, and his daughter filed a petition for appointment of a guardian. Soon, a guardian “of the property” was appointed. More than a year later, Alan and Glenda went ahead and got married. Was their attempted marriage valid?

Florida law applies

First, it’s important to note that Alan and Glenda did not live in Arizona. They were Florida residents. The guardianship was instituted in Florida, and the attempted marriage took place in the same state. Florida law will determine whether their marriage was valid, and the law of other states — including Arizona — might be very different.

In fact, Florida law on the subject is unusual. It is not that The Sunshine State applies different principles from other states. Florida’s distinction is that it has law on the validity of attempted marriages by people under guardianship. Most states (including Arizona) have no legislative pronouncements on the issue.

In the course of Alan’s guardianship proceeding, an attorney had been appointed to represent him. That attorney filed a motion in the guardianship proceeding, asking the court to annul the attempted marriage. Glenda filed a petition asking the judge to ratify the marriage, instead.

Marriage is, after all, a contract — a deeply personal and profound one, but a contract nonetheless. Because the judge had earlier ruled that Alan did not have the capacity to enter into a contract, he now agreed that the attempted marriage was invalid and should be annulled. Glenda appealed.

Florida appellate courts rule on the attempted marriage

The Florida Court of Appeals ruled first, just four and one-half years after the wedding ceremony. It decided that the question was too important for a clear answer. Instead, the appellate court asked the state’s Supreme Court to weigh in on the subject.

Recently the Florida Supreme Court answered the question posed by the Court of Appeals. Interestingly, though, the answer was not responsive to the original question.

The Court of Appeals had asked how to apply Florida law on contractual capacity. Once a guardian of the property is appointed, said the appellate court, the power to contract is lost. Does that mean that Alan and Glenda’s attempted marriage was automatically invalid? Or did that mean that the guardianship court could invalidate the marriage upon request?

Neither, said the Supreme Court. The attempted marriage is not automatically invalid. Neither is it invalidated upon request. Instead, the guardianship court should be prepared to consider whether the marriage should be approved.

The difference is subtle but important. As it turns out, Glenda had several times asked Alan’s guardian to get court approval prior to the wedding. That had not happened. According to the Supreme Court, it is not too late — even (now) almost seven years later. Smith v. Smith, August 31, 2017.

Is Arizona law similar?

It’s nice to think that Alan and Glenda have another chance to have their marriage ratified by the guardianship court. But what if the events had taken place in Arizona, instead?

Unlike Florida law, Arizona’s statutes are less precise on the effect of a guardianship or conservatorship order. In fact, that raises the first issue: is it appointment of a guardian (of the person) or a conservator (of the estate) that makes the difference?

Under Arizona law, a guardian has control over the personal decisions for an individual who has been adjudged to be incapacitated. A conservator can be appointed for someone who is in need of protection — but they need not be found to be incapacitated. In Arizona, Alan could have had a conservator appointed to handle his finances, without any determination about his capacity to enter into a contract like marriage.

Florida makes a subtly different distinction. First, it uses different language. Arizona’s guardian and conservator would both be called “guardian” under Florida law. They would be distinguished as guardian “of the person” or guardian “of the property”. Alan’s guardian was of the latter type — equivalent to, but different from, Arizona’s “conservator”.

In Alan’s case, even though only a guardian “of the property” was appointed, the probate judge made a determination that he lacked the capacity to enter into a contract. That would be a very unusual ruling under Arizona’s different system.

But what would happen in Arizona?

Would appointment of a conservator “of the estate” in Arizona invalidate later marriages? Almost certainly not — though of course the person with a conservator might actually be incapacitated and unable to enter into a marriage agreement. But the mere fact of a conservatorship would probably not allow the marriage to be invalidated.

How about appointment of a guardian “of the person”? There is some reason to believe that it might make an attempted marriage voidable, at least — though Arizona law is far less specific than Florida law. There is one fairly recent Arizona appellate decision — though it is not formally reported and therefore can not be cited as authority.

In that Arizona Court of Appeals case (Savittieri v. Williams, January 2, 2014), the sequence was a little different. Events transpired in this order:

  1. A physician wrote a letter saying that the individual was unable to handle her own finances.
  2. Two years later, the physician described her as “incompetent to make decisions”.
  3. Another two years passed, and the woman in question asked her minister to officiate at a wedding to her long-time roommate. The minister declined because he believed the woman was incapacitated.
  4. Two months later, the woman’s daughter filed a guardianship and conservatorhsip petition.
  5. While that proceeding was pending, the woman and her roommate were married.
  6. The guardianship and conservatorship were established two days after the attempted marriage.
  7. The guardian/conservator sought to annul the marriage promptly after appointment.

In those facts, the Arizona courts ruled that the attempted marriage should be annulled. But perhaps Alan and Glenda’s facts would be seen differently.

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