Deathbed Marriages

It is well known that many wealthy individuals come to sunny Florida to retire. Unfortunately, Florida also has its fair share of people looking to take advantage of Florida’s wealthy, elderly population. For example, it is not uncommon for a younger man or woman to marry a high net worth individual whose life expectancy is nearing its end. This type of marriage is commonly referred to as a “deathbed marriage.” In Florida, people used to be able to enter into valid marriages while one spouse was literally on their deathbed with only minutes to live. Luckily, a change in the law has opened the door to challenge this type of marriage.

Deathbed marriages are a common way for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the elderly. The younger spouses of the newly deceased have the right to the decedent’s homestead and anywhere from thirty percent to one hundred percent of the decedent’s estate under the Florida elective share statute, or intestacy, statute. It used to be that heirs could not challenge the validity of deathbed marriages. Under Florida law, marriages even minutes before death were valid and other potential heirs had no standing to challenge them. However, Florida Statute Section 732.805 drastically changed this. Most notably, the statute gives a decedent’s heirs standing to challenge a deathbed marriage.

Florida Statute Section 732.805, Spousal Rights Procured by Fraud, Duress, or Undue Influence, states “[a] surviving spouse who is found to have procured a marriage to the decedent by fraud, duress, or undue influence is not entitled to any of the following rights or benefits that inure solely by virtue of the marriage or the person’s status as surviving spouse of the decedent unless the decedent and the surviving spouse voluntarily cohabited as husband and wife with full knowledge of the facts constituting the fraud, duress, or undue influence or both spouses otherwise subsequently ratified the marriage…” This means that if a surviving spouse is found to have in some way coerced, pressured, or forced the decedent into a marriage, the surviving spouse will lose some of their most important rights under the law. It must be proven that both parties voluntarily entered into the marriage or otherwise approved the marriage.

For deathbed surviving spouses, the statute takes away the right to benefits under the Florida Probate Code, rights to life insurance policies or other benefits for which the decedent was the obligor, and any rights under a will or trust among others. The statute also takes away any state granted immunity from the presumption of undue influence. Thus, under the statute the surviving spouse of a deathbed marriage loses all of the benefits they might have hoped to gain through the fraudulent union.

The other key element of Florida Statute Section 732.805 is that it gives standing to interested persons to challenge a deathbed marriage. The statute says: “(3) [a] challenge to a surviving spouse’s rights under this section may be maintained as a defense, objection, or cause of action by any interested person after the death of the decedent in any proceeding in which the fact of marriage may be directly or indirectly material.”

An interested party can challenge the marriage based on fraud, duress, or undue influence, and the party contesting the deathbed marriage has the burden of establishing that the marriage was procured by fraud, duress, or undue influence. This burden must be established by a preponderance of the evidence. The challenger meets that burden, it then shifts to the surviving spouse to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the marriage was ratified by both parties. There is a four year statute of limitations to challenging a deathbed marriage.

If you or someone you know has entered into a marriage as a result of Fraud, Duress, or Undue Influence, the lawyers at Chepenik Trushin LLP can help.

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