A Will Contest That Would Make Jerry Springer Smile

A Will Contest That Would Make Jerry Springer Smile

Anna, the niece and the surviving “spouse” of her uncle, attempted to probate his will in which she was the primary beneficiary. Julie, one of the 3 children of the deceased, contests the will since Texas law prohibits marriage to a niece (or to a parent, grandparent, sibling, nephew, child, uncle, aunt or first cousin) as such marriages would be considered “void”.

After Julie’s mom died, her dad secretly married Anna in a state where it is legal to marry a niece/uncle – even though Anna and her “spouse” (Julie’s dad and Anna’s uncle) had their domicile in Texas. Anna and the deceased were “married” 4 years prior to the death of the deceased.
Three years later, he revised his will whereby his entire estate (other than a few specific bequests) was to be distributed to Anna. In contesting the will, Julie alleged her dad lacked capacity at the time he signed the will in addition to marriage being void are a matter of law.
Anna’s response was that if there is a question as to testamentary capacity, the marriage could be voidable only if there was a challenge within 3 years (pursuant to the Texas Estate Code) and there was no question that they had been married for over 4 years.
After the lower court gave a summary judgement in favor of Julie, Anna then appealed.
The appeals court ruled in favor of Julie for a few main reasons:

  1. Texas domicile of the deceased

Although they were married in a state where it is legal for an uncle and niece to marry, their domicile was Texas and thus the laws of Texas should prevail. (In reading this case, I see no mention by the court of full faith and credit under the U.S. Constitution).

  1. Difference between “void” and voidable”

Although there is a 3-year statute of limitations to make a marriage “voidable” by bringing a suit for an annulment if there is a lack of mental capacity or fraud at the time of the marriage, the court determined the marriage was “void” at its onset since Texas law prohibits an uncle from marrying his niece. There was clear and convincing evidence that Anna was the biological daughter of the sister of the deceased. Under common law, a suit to declare a marriage void may be brought by anyone, at any time. As a result, Anna’s statute of limitations argument failed.

3. Standing
Similar to Texas law regarding divorces, if a beneficiary is divorced from the deceased, the former spouse cannot be a beneficiary (unless the will was done after the divorce and named the former spouse as a beneficiary). If divorced, a will is to be treated as if the divorced spouse predeceased the decedent and then pass to the contingent beneficiary. In this case, the will of the deceased said if Anna predeceased him, his estate would pass to Julie’s sister and then to his heirs at law (which in this case were his children). Anna argued Julie did not have standing (the right to bring suit) since Julie’s sister was named as the beneficiary (not Julie) if Anna was not entitled to be the beneficiary. However, since the will said if Julie’s sister predeceased her dad, that the estate would pass to his heirs. The court ruled that Julie, even as a contingent remote beneficiary, had standing to bring the suit.

Although Anna did not prevail, Jerry Springer would have loved the story.
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