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Estate Plan For Benefit Of “Confidential” Wife Upheld

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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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Robert B. Fleming


Robert Fleming is a Fellow of both the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. He has been certified as a Specialist in Estate and Trust Law by the State Bar of Arizona‘s Board of Legal Specialization, and he is also a Certified Elder Law Attorney by the National Elder Law Foundation. Robert has a long history of involvement in local, state and national organizations. He is most proud of his instrumental involvement in the Special Needs Alliance, the premier national organization for lawyers dealing with special needs trusts and planning.

Robert has two adult children, two young grandchildren and a wife of over fifty years. He is devoted to all of them. He is also very fond of Rosalind Franklin (his office companion corgi), and his homebound cat Muninn. He just likes people, their pets and their stories.

Elizabeth N.R. Friman


Elizabeth Noble Rollings Friman is a principal and licensed fiduciary at Fleming & Curti, PLC. Elizabeth enjoys estate planning and helping families navigate trust and probate administrations. She is passionate about the fiduciary work that she performs as a trustee, personal representative, guardian, and conservator. Elizabeth works with CPAs, financial professionals, case managers, and medical providers to tailor solutions to complex family challenges. Elizabeth is often called upon to serve as a neutral party so that families can avoid protracted legal conflict. Elizabeth relies on the expertise of her team at Fleming & Curti, and as the Firm approaches its third decade, she is proud of the culture of care and consideration that the Firm embodies. Finding workable solutions to sensitive and complex family challenges is something that Elizabeth and the Fleming & Curti team do well.

Amy F. Matheson


Amy Farrell Matheson has worked as an attorney at Fleming & Curti since 2006. A member of the Southern Arizona Estate Planning Council, she is primarily responsible for estate planning and probate matters.

Amy graduated from Wellesley College with a double major in political science and English. She is an honors graduate of Suffolk University Law School and has been admitted to practice in Arizona, Massachusetts, New York, and the District of Columbia.

Prior to joining Fleming & Curti, Amy worked for American Public Television in Boston, and with the international trade group at White & Case, LLP, in Washington, D.C.

Amy’s husband, Tom, is an astronomer at NOIRLab and the Head of Time Domain Services, whose main project is ANTARES. Sadly, this does not involve actual time travel. Amy’s twin daughters are high school students; Finn, her Irish Red and White Setter, remains a puppy at heart.

Famous people's wills

Matthew M. Mansour


Matthew is a law clerk who recently earned his law degree from the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law. His undergraduate degree is in psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Matthew has had a passion for advocacy in the Tucson community since his time as a law student representative in the Workers’ Rights Clinic. He also has worked in both the Pima County Attorney’s Office and the Pima County Public Defender’s Office. He enjoys playing basketball, caring for his cat, and listening to audiobooks narrated by the authors.