Imagine a terminally-ill person marrying a long-time companion in the final weeks of life. If he or she was incapacitated at the time, can the marriage be annulled after the new spouse’s death? The Nebraska Supreme Court thinks so.
Molly Stacey’s last years
Greg Meyer, then 54, moved in with Molly Stacey in 2009. The couple lived together for the next eight years. Greg had not held a regular job for almost seven years before moving in, and never took a job after his arrival. He did, though, help Molly take care of her two children (who were then minors), and took care of the household.
In 2015 Molly learned that she had mouth cancer (that diagnosis, by the way, is why we use a blue-lipstick photo at the top of this newsletter — it’s a symbol for mouth cancer action month each November). She began treatment, but the cancer spread and her condition worsened. By late 2017, her family and friends knew that she was declining. She died on October 23, 2017, at the age of 60.
Molly had never signed a will, though she had beneficiary designations on a number of her assets. All of them named some combination of her two children. But in the last two weeks of her life, she took a number of steps that affected her estate.
On October 14, just nine days before her death, Molly married Greg in a ceremony in her home. Molly allegedly told the witnesses to keep the wedding secret from her children. In the days after the wedding, she also changed beneficiary designations on many of her assets. The new designations left several assets (including two houses) to Greg outright, divided a number of accounts between Greg and her two children, and added Greg’s son as a one-third beneficiary (with her children) on one other account.
Can a marriage be annulled after death of a spouse?
Molly’s two children, believing that Greg took advantage of her in her final weeks, filed a complaint to annul the marriage. They also sought to invalidate the various transactions undertaken during those last two weeks.
Greg moved to dismiss the complaint. He argued that the children could not maintain such an action. Only Molly’s estate would be able to seek an annulment, in his legal view. So the children initiated a probate proceeding and had a “special administrator” appointed. Then they modified their complaint to include the estate.
At trial, the children introduced evidence that Molly had long insisted that she did not intend to remarry. Witnesses testified that she did not want Greg’s name on her accounts, and wanted everything to go to her children. The children showed that her condition declined rapidly in those last few weeks, and that Greg had increasingly isolated her from contact with them or her long-time friends. They insisted that Greg had unduly influenced her. In fact, they claimed, she lacked capacity to change her beneficiary designations or even get married.
The court largely agreed with the children. The judge ordered the marriage annulled and set aside most of the transactions. One transaction, though, was not undone — Molly had put Greg’s son’s name on a boat she purchased two years before her death. As to that transaction, the judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show that she did not intend to make a gift.
The Nebraska Supreme Court weighs in
After Greg appealed the rulings against him, the children cross-appealed. The case ended up last week in the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Greg argued that simply naming Molly’s estate as a party was not enough. He pointed out that the children still filed all of the pleadings and prosecuted the case. The estate didn’t actively participate. Family members who believe that a marriage was invalid can’t pursue a post-death annulment on their own, he insisted.
He also challenged the trial judge’s findings that the various transactions were the subject of undue influence. Her children, though, pointed out that her medical records indicated that she was in and out of delirium, and that her interactions with others were minimal during that time. They also insisted that the only reason Molly had put Greg’s son’s name on the boat she purchased (for $119,000) long before her death was for tax purposes — he would be able to claim it as a vacation home because he held a specialized license to operate the boat.
The state Supreme Court agreed with Molly’s children on every point. They upheld the trial court’s marriage annulment, and also the invalidation of her beneficiary changes. But they went further: the state high court set aside the transfer of the boat to Greg’s son, as well. Malousek v. Meyer, July 30, 2021.
Significance of the court’s holding on annulment of the marriage
The trial court set aside virtually all of the transactions (and the Supreme Court set aside the last one). So what difference did it make whether the marriage was annulled? Because of the rules governing intestacy, Greg might have had at least a partial claim against Molly’s estate as a surviving spouse. [We don’t pretend to know much of anything about Nebraska law or the precise status of Molly’s estate, but can imagine that there would be additional issues.]
If Molly had signed a will while she was changing those beneficiary designations (and getting married), would the challenge have been more difficult? Her children would presumably have argued that the will, too, was the product of undue influence. It is hard — but not impossible — to challenge a will (or a beneficiary designation, for that matter) on the grounds of undue influence.
What about Arizona?
Would an Arizona court reach the same conclusion? It seems likely, though there is not a precise precedent in Arizona law — and what law there is doesn’t resolve the question. In a similar 2014 case, the Arizona Court of Appeals annulled a marriage after the death of an incapacitated spouse (and we reported on it at the time), but that appellate case was unreported — meaning it can’t be relied on as precedent.
Just to keep the confusion level high, an earlier Arizona appellate case (this one a reported decision — Estate of Rodriguez) includes language that suggests that neither a divorce nor an annulment can proceed after the death of a spouse. We pointed out that 2007 Arizona case in our 2013 article about a Wisconsin case that allowed an annulment to proceed after death. Ironically, the Arizona case with the opposite holding was decided just a year later.
In that later, 2014, Arizona case, the court noted that a divorce proceeding ends with the death of either spouse. This makes sense — a marriage ends with the death of a spouse, and so there is nothing to dissolve. But annulment is different, since it requires a showing that the marriage was never valid in the first place. On balance, we think the second Arizona case reaches the better conclusion. Plus, the Wisconsin and Nebraska courts agree.