Incapacity and marriage, the role of guardianship court

Do incapacitated wards need prior court approval to marry? Subsequent ratification is enough

Already in 1888, the United States Supreme Court first recognized the right to marry as one of the fundamental rights of all individuals.  Describing marriage as “the most important relationship in life,” the Court went on upholding that marriage is “the foundation of the family and society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”  Maynard v. Hill, 125 U.S. 190 (1888).

Regretfully, when it comes to marriage of incapacitated persons, they are sometimes the victims of emotional abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation.  For this reason, a guardianship court may remove an incapacitated person’s right to marry if there is clear and convincing evidence that he or she is incapacitated with respect to that right.  Fla. Stat. 744.3215(2)(a); 744.331(6).  However, even when a guardianship court does not remove the right to marry, an incapacitated person’s right to marry becomes “subject to court approval” when his or her right to contract has been removed.  Fla. Stat. 744.3215(2)(a).  This legal framework aims at protecting the ward by allowing a court to assess the risks of abuse and exploitation, while upholding the ward’s fundamental right to marry, to the greatest extent possible.

The Florida Supreme Court recently ruled in a case where an incapacitated ward whose right to contract had been removed got married without obtaining a prior court approval.  Smith v. Smith, SC16-1312, 2017 WL 3774702 (Fla. Aug. 31, 2017).  Both the trial court and the appellate court interpreted Fla. Stat. 744.3215(2)(a) to mean that a marriage without a prior court approval is void, meaning that there never was any marriage to begin with.  The Florida Supreme Court disagreed with this interpretation as being excessively broad and unjust.  Instead, it found that such a marriage is “merely” invalid, and therefore may be subsequently ratified by a court.  This means that once an invalid marriage is ratified, it becomes a fully valid marriage with all its legal implications, such as the entitlement of a spouse to an elective share or homestead implications.  According to the Florida Supreme Court, this interpretation “reflects the Legislature’s objective of protecting incapacitated persons from abuse and exploitation on the one hand, and upholding their rights, dignity, and quality of life on the other.”

How can a marriage be ratified?  While the Florida Supreme Court does not provide a bright-line answer, it does tell us what is insufficient for a ratification.  In Smith, Glenda and Alan Smith got married without a prior court approval in 2011, one year after Alan suffered a head trauma from a car accident and was declared incapacitated.  During a hearing before the guardianship court in 2012 related to a petition to move Alan to another assisted living facility, the collateral issue of Alan’s marriage to Glenda arose.  The couple’s marriage certificate was entered into evidence without objection, although Alan’s guardian stated that he did not think they were actually married because court approval had not been obtained.  From the hearing’s transcript, it is clear that the guardianship court explicitly recognized the marriage and acknowledged the marriage certificate but did not issue an order ratifying the marriage as such.  The Florida Supreme Court held this to be insufficient, stating that “it is unlikely that the Legislature intended for ‘court approval’ to consist merely of acknowledging the existence of a marriage certificate and commenting on the alleged marriage without issuing an order ratifying the marriage or conducting a hearing to verify that the ward understands the marriage contract, desires the marriage, and that the relationship is not exploitative.”

While this recent decision protects the right of incapacitated persons to marry, one must be cautious to comply with the legal requirements when seeking a ratification of a marriage.  If you, your loved ones, or your wards find yourselves in a similar situation, do not hesitate to contact the lawyers at Chepenik Trushin LLP, who are experienced, ready, and willing to help.