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Women fail to undo their sister's deathbed "I do" (part 4)

We are finishing up our story of an annulment case recently decided by an appellate court. It is an interesting family law case that touches on other areas of law, including probate and estate planning, as well as a little civil procedure. In our last post, we discussed the burden of proof in the state where all of this took place and how different it is from Illinois' burden.

The four main actors are three sisters -- Janet, Amy and Mary -- and Janet's husband, Tim. The fact that Tim was Janet's husband came as a surprise to Amy and Mary; the couple wed secretly at the hospital shortly before Janet died of cancer. Her sisters claimed the marriage was improper, that Janet had been incapacitated at the time and that she had been the victim of fraud.

The court said that the evidence did not support the mental capacity claim. The court noted, too, that Janet and Tim had been together, off and on, for 13 years. Their relationship cannot have been a surprise, especially since Janet was living with Tim right before her last hospital stay.

The last problem with the claim was that the sisters actually couldn't make it. To make a claim in court, a party must have "standing." Essentially, a plaintiff must have suffered harm at the hands of the defendant or have permission under the law (a mother may sue on behalf of her 10-year-old son, for example, because there is a specific statute that says she can).

According to the appellate decision, Amy and Mary did not have standing. In that state and in Illinois, only the parties to a marriage can petition for an annulment; in some cases, as in a lack of capacity case, the legal representative may petition. The law in their state specifically forbids third parties (that is, someone who is not the husband or the wife) to petition for an annulment claiming the marriage was fraudulent.

So, as far as the estate was concerned, Tim was Janet's surviving spouse. Amy and Mary could not prove mental incapacity, and they could not prove fraud. Because they were claiming fraud, they could not petition for an annulment.

Now, in Illinois, an annulment is no longer an option if one of the partners is dead at the time of the petition. The sisters never would have filed the claim.

Source: Courthouse News Service, "In-Laws Can't Annul Deathbed Wedding," Jeff D. Gorman, April 27, 2012

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