JULY 22, 2002 VOLUME 10, NUMBER 3
Late-life marriages, of course, are usually unions of love—even when entered into by widows and widowers with families from earlier marriages. The strains on family relationships can be severe, but love can conquer all. Sometimes, though, late marriages can be the product of manipulation and overreaching by one of the spouses. While there is little empirical data to indicate any change, it seems increasingly common that mildly (or even severely) demented seniors are drawn into marriages with (often younger) caretakers, opportunists or even, sometimes, well-meaning but self-interested acquaintances. A recent Illinois case explored the aftermath of such a relationship.
John R. Lundahl and Elizabeth Gabel were married in Florida in August, 1988. By 1989, Mr. Lundahl had become so incapacitated that a guardian had been appointed to make both personal and financial decisions for him. His guardian sued to have the marriage annulled, arguing that Mr. Lundahl had actually been incapacitated at the time of the marriage, even though no court order had been entered to that effect.
After a year of negotiations Ms. Gabel agreed that the marriage could be annulled, but on the condition that Mr. Lundahl’s guardian pay her $1,700 per month for the rest of her life. Payments began in July of that year.
After Mr. Lundahl died in June, 2000, the question arose whether his probate estate was liable for continued payments for the rest of Ms. Gabel’s life. She argued that the agreement clearly required lifetime payments, and that it was akin to the property settlement agreement that might have been entered had the couple gotten a divorce. The probate court agreed and ordered that the payments continue.
The Illinois Court of Appeals disagreed. Annulment of the marriage, said the appellate court, was a judicial declaration that the marriage never existed, not that a valid marriage was ended. Since no marriage ever existed the settlement agreement should be judged according to general contract principles rather than the standards applied in divorce cases. Even if marital settlement agreement principles were applied the payments should end, the court decided.
Public policy considerations, said the judges, required that any intention to extend liability after the death of one party to a contract should be clearly expressed in the contract itself. Although this agreement was to continue for the rest of Ms. Gabel’s “natural life,” it was silent about what would happen on the death of Mr. Lundahl, the other party to the agreement. In the absence of clear language, Mr. Lundahl’s estate was not liable, and the payments to Ms. Gable ended on his death. Estate of Lundahl, July 16, 2002.