Annulments and Invalid Marriages in North Carolina Estate Litigation

What constitutes a valid marriage has become a unique question for some estate litigators. Some recent cases show how the validity of a marriage can affect the estate of one of the “spouses”.
Annulments and Invalid Marriages in North Carolina Estate Litigation

In re Estate of Peacock: Religious vs Legal Ceremonies

In In re Estate of Peacock, 248 N.C. App. 18, 21, 788 S.E.2d 191, 194 (2016), the North Carolina Court of Appeal dealt with the question of the legal validity of marriage. Richard and Bernadine were married and had three children. In 2007, the couple divorced, and Bernadine moved into separate lodging. They reconciled soon after and Bernadine moved back into Richard’s house in 2012. They informed their reverend that they intended to re-marry imminently. Richard was hospitalized in late 2013 due to chronic medical issues. The two were married in the hospital by their reverend, their son and maid of honor attended as witnesses. The next day, Richard passed away.

Their daughter petitioned the court for letters of administration, omitting her mother from the list of the decedent’s heirs. Bernadine filed a motion to determine heirs, claiming that she was the decedent's spouse when he died. However, the reverend and Bernadine never procured a marriage license for the hospital wedding. The clerk of court concluded that the marriage was not valid, and that Bernadine could not take any interest in Richard’s estate. Bernadine appealed to the Superior Court, which upheld the ruling. 

The North Carolina Court of Appeal allowed leave to appeal. In its judgment, the Court looked to the relevant statute.  Section 51-1 outlines that

A valid and sufficient marriage is created by the consent of a male and female person who may lawfully marry, presently to take each other as husband and wife, freely, seriously and plainly expressed by each in the presence of the other, either:
(1) a. In the presence of an ordained minister of any religious denomination, a minister authorized by a church, or a magistrate; and
b. With the consequent declaration by the minister or magistrate that the persons are husband and wife[.]

Applying this provision to the facts of the case, the Court concluded that the Decedent and Petitioner were able to marry, seriously expressed their wish to, that their reverend was an ordained minister who could validly conduct marriage ceremonies, and the reverend did declare Bernadine and Richard husband and wife during the ceremony. While the trial court found that the marriage was merely a religious wedding, and not a legal one, the Court of Appeal noted that it met the requirement of a wedding. Alongside the previous factors, Richard and Bernadine stated that they would take each other as husband and wife “freely, seriously, and plainly expressed by each in the presence of the other”. Although the reverend claimed that they were performing a “religious ceremony” rather than a legal one, her opinion did not change the facts. Only the two spouses had to believe in the marriage’s legal validity, which they seemingly did. By fulfilling the criteria outlined in section 51-1, the couple are presumed married.

Undelivered Marriage License

The issue remained that section 51-6 required the reverend to have the license delivered and signed by the county's register of deeds. Having not believed in the "legal" nature of the wedding, their reverend failed to do so, thus undermining Bernadine's claim of being Richard's lawful spouse. However, 51-6 should be read with 51-7, which states that the reverend is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor and subject to financial penalty if they fail to return a validly signed marriage license within 10 days of the marriage. The North Carolina Supreme Court had previously stated in State v. Robbins, 28 N.C. 23, 25 (1845) that a marriage without a proper license is still valid, but the officiant is open to suffering a penalty. Under North Carollina law, a marriage is presumed valid when its ceremony fulfills the criteria in 51-1. Thus Bernadine was the valid spouse and entitled to inherit her share of the estate. 

With the increased burden of registering a marriage and receiving a license, some couples are unable to receive the necessary documents to formalize their marriage. In this case, the Court of Appeal demonstrated the accommodation afforded to ill couples seeking marriage. By recognizing that a marriage without a license remained valid and only penalized the officiant, the Court allowed for more last-minute marriages as long as the ceremony met the other requirements. Furthermore, the minister's intention has no impact on the legality of the marriage, only the sincerity of the newlyweds mattered. Despite the decedent’s daughter attempting to undermine the validity of the marriage to enlarge her inheritance, the marriage met the requirements for the spouse’s inheritance.

Hill v Durrett: Unauthorized Minister and Judicial Estoppel Defence

In contrast, Hill v Durrett (2022) demonstrated the necessity of other formal requirements. Carlyle Hill and Linda Durrett were married in Linda’s friend’s backyard but separated fourteen months later. Carlyle filed for divorce. Afterward, he learned that the officiant was not a magistrate, ordained minister, or minister authorized to perform weddings. Carlyle filed a separate complaint to annul the marriage on these grounds, but passed away soon after. His estate was substituted as a party in the annulment. Carlyle’s attorney testified that his client had not known anything about the officiant, and no evidence existed that she was a reverend. Linda testified that she believed her friend to be a validly ordained minister.

Despite this mistaken belief, Linda recognized that the marriage was voidable. She chose to contest the annulment because the divorce proceedings and interim distribution estopped her “spouse” both judicially and equitably from seeking the annulment. One can not seek a divorce from a marriage they believe is invalid. However, these claims were denied by both the trial court and Court of Appeal. 

Judicial estoppel prevents parties from asserting legal positions inconsistent with one another. In this case, the two actions of divorce and annulment were not inconsistent – they both sought to end the relationship with Linda. Practically, the interim distribution of the property in the divorce proceedings would not lead to inconsistent results. Finally, Carlyle was mistaken in believing the marriage was valid and only sought the annulment when he learned the marriage was possibly invalid. He did not try to assert two inconsistent legal claims. There was no case for judicial estoppel. 

Equitable estoppel requires the other party to a dispute to act unfairly and not deserve equitable relief. In this case, Carlyle did not participate in organizing the invalid marriage. Linda chose the officiant, convinced Carlyle that her friend could marry them, and was in charge of ensuring the validity of the officiant. In these circumstances, Carlyle had no culpability in the invalid marriage. Equitable estoppel was unavailable to Linda. Carlyle and Linda’s marriage would be considered annulled, and thus Linda could not benefit from an inheritance or other relief as a spouse. Ultimately, the officiant’s qualification is paramount in creating a real marriage. When an annulment is sought during the decedent’s death, the court will honor the proceeding and not disqualify it unnecessarily. 

Clark v. Foust-Graham: Reaffirming Ivery’s Beneficiary (and Executor) Standing for Annulments

Clark v. Foust-Graham 171 N.C. App. 707, 615 S.E.2d 398 (2005) demonstrates how in some circumstances, beneficiaries can use the invalidity of a marriage to receive a bigger share of the decedent’s estate. In this case, the eighty-year-old James had married a spouse half his age, Wesley. Wesley spent most of her time caring for James in his home. During their marriage ceremony, however, James exhibited erratic behavior. Wesley attempted to keep their marriage a secret from James’ family. A doctor later  determined that James was suffering from dementia and Alzheimers disease. Before his death, James’ daughter Kelly acted as his guardian ad litem. Kelly filed an action on her father’s behalf to annul the marriage based on her father’s incompetency, lack of consent, and undue influence.

After his death, Kelly assumed the role of executrix of her father’s estate. She attempted to continue the proceedings and substitute herself as the plaintiff in annulment proceedings both as an executrix and beneficiary of James’ estate. The trial court allowed her to continue the suit as executrix, but not as a beneficiary. The jury subsequently found that while James had competency and had consented to the marriage, Wesley had exerted undue influence on James in his weakened state, and the judge issued an order annulling the marriage. 

Wesley appealed this decision. On the first ground, Wesley claimed that the executrix could not continue the action to annul the marriage after her father’s death. The Court of Appeal disagreed with this argument. Per Rule 25(a) of the North Carolina Rules of Civil Procedure, an action does not abate due to a party’s death if the cause of action survives. The proceeding in favor of the decedent continues unless the relief sought could not be enjoyed or if its granting would be nugatory after death (28A-18-1(b)(3)). 

Furthermore, the North Carolina Supreme Court in Ivery v Ivery had previously determined that a person may seek an annulment after the death of the spouse if that person’s legal rights depend on the marriage’s validity. In that case, the brother of the decedent could contest the decedent’s marriage’s validity to determine his own rights of succession as a potential heir. The Court of Appeal reiterated that this right continues to exist in North Carolina law. 

In its own determination, the Court of Appeal discussed how the marital status of a decedent might greatly influence the distribution of their estate. The court noted that a surviving spouse can choose an elective or intestate share, a year’s allowance from the decedent’s personal property, and an elective share if the will was executed prior to marriage. Although the court did not mention it, the reverse is also true: an annulment of the marriage would revoke the provisions in the will in favor of the testator’s former spouse.

With these far-reaching ramifications on the rights of the heirs, Kelly was permitted to continue the annulment proceeding. Even without these property interests at stake as a beneficiary, Kelly could have continued the motion on her father’s estate’s behalf through section 28A-18-1. Clark v Foust-Graham reminds attorneys of the vast implications that an annulled marriage may have on the decedent’s estate, as well as Ivery’s continued impact in allowing beneficiaries to challenge validity of a decedent’s marriage. 

Takeaway

As demonstrated, the potential of an annulment can have dramatic effects on one’s estate plan and creates the possibility of future estate litigation. Both testators and those happy with an intestacy succession should take extra steps to ensure their recent marriage is valid. Estate planners should ensure familiarity with potential family law issues and their exceptions to best serve their clients.

Edward Khidirov
Edward Khidirov is the Lead Legal Researcher at Estateably. He is currently a J.D./B.C.L. candidate at McGill University Faculty of Law. Edward holds a Joint Honors B.A. in History and Political Science from McGill University Faculty of Arts.
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