A King County Surrogate’s Court judge recently handed down a significant ruling in the case of a caretaker who appeared to marry her elderly patient in his final days in an effort to claim part of the deceased’s estate. The judge hearing the case decided the woman forfeited her statutory share of the estate because she knowingly married the deceased while he was alive and mentally incapacitated.
The ruling came down after a 37-day trial and nearly 12-years of litigation surrounding the $5 million estate of a successful businessman who was 100-years old when he passed away in 2006. The now deceased married his caretaker in secret in from of the New York City Clerk’s Office, without the knowledge of his two adult sons who brought the challenges to the estate.
The judge said he found it impossible that the deceased’s wife did not know her husband was mentally incapacitated when they married just a year before the man’s death.. “The evidence presented shows consistent, insidious and duplicitous conduct that led to” the wife’s “clandestine marriage” to the deceased, the judge said.
Under New York law, spouses are entitled to inherit at least one-third of their deceased spouse’s estate or $50,000 of its value, whichever is higher. In a 2008 ruling the case, the judge initially sided with the deceased’s wife on the grounds that even if the petitioners’ claims were true, the court’s hands were essentially tied by the statute.
However, a major turning point came in 2010 when the Second Department of the Appellate Division reversed the lower court’s ruling after it found that a spouse forfeits his or her right to election if the individual knowingly marries an elderly or infirm person for the purpose of obtaining some of their estate. The appeals court, noted that before his death, the deceased was totally dependant on his caretaker.
With the court’s ruling, New York probate law appears to hold that just as an individual cannot unjustly enrich him or herself by coercing a mentally incapacitated person into leaving portions of an estate, the same holds true for someone marrying another who is mentally incapacitated. When interested parties can show that an heir attempted to coerce a testator into crafting an invalid will or enter into married, these petitioners may be able to invalidate wills or otherwise deny statutory shares of an estate.