We are increasingly seeing more disputes over the validity of marriages in probate litigation. A recurring fact pattern is that a romantic partner will attempt to orchestrate a marriage to the second partner, who is suffering from some degree of cognitive impairment and perhaps residing in a facility. Instead of obtaining a will through mental incapacity or undue influence, the bad actor in this scenario uses mental incapacity or undue influence to procure a marriage license, expecting to inherit the second spouse’s estate under the law of intestacy. There may be disputes over whether the wedding officiant and others should be admitted to the facility for the purpose of conducting a wedding. When a marriage is performed secretly without the knowledge of one spouse’s family, there may be subsequent litigation over the validity of the marriage brought by a disabled spouse’s conservator or the personal representative of a deceased spouse’s estate.
The Michigan Court of Appeals recently issued a decision in a case involving the validity of a marriage, In re Estate of Murray, 2023 Westlaw 2436798, Docket No 357107 (Mich Ct App Mar 9 2023) (unpublished). In the Murray case, there was no allegation of mental incapacity. Instead, the issue was that the marriage had occurred one day after the marriage license expired. After the husband Leroy died, Sandra claimed that she was his surviving spouse for purposes of intestacy. The personal representative of Leroy’s estate petitioned the probate court to determine Leroy’s heirs.
The probate court conducted a four-day trial. There was conflicting evidence as to whether the parties had intended to enter into a valid marriage. Some witnesses testified that Leroy and Sandra knew that the marriage was void based on the expired license, but that they had put on a sham ceremony so that Sandra could save face with her friends. There was also conflicting evidence as to whether the parties had conducted themselves like a married couple after the ceremony, although the great weight of this evidence was against Sandra (e.g., she filed her tax returns as a single person). Ultimately, the probate court ruled that the marriage was invalid because the couple lacked a valid marriage license. On appeal, Sandra emphasized the fact that the county clerk had accepted the marriage certificate for filing, after it was filled out by the officiant at the wedding. Sandra argued that the certificate was presumptive proof of the fact of the marriage, under Michigan statute MCL 551.18. The appellate court agreed that the presumption applied, but found that the presumption had been rebutted by the proof of the lack of a valid marriage license.
If you would like assistance with a dispute over the validity of a marriage or any other type of probate litigation matter, contact Warner probate litigation attorneys David Skidmore (email@example.com; 616.752.2491) or Laura Morris (firstname.lastname@example.org; 616.752.2407).