Children successfully void father's marriage

In Estate of Durrill The Corpus Christi Court of Appeals considered a suit by children to void their father’s marriage, pursuant to Chapter 123 of the Texas Estates Code.

In 2008 William R. "Dusty" Durrill, a prominent Corpus Christi businessman was widowed after fifty years of marriage. Durrill had two living children at the time of the death of his wife. His children and other third parties helped Durrill in his business ventures. Durrill remained active in his businesses 2008. However, shortly after his wife’s death he began to disengage from the day to day operations of his businesses.

Durrill began living with Gasaway in 2009. Around this time Durrill began to suffer from various chronic health problems and showed a pronounced decline in his mental capacity. Durrill signed a statutory durable power of attorney on September 14, 2014, giving his son Bill Jr. the right to make decisions for himself in all matters.

By September 2015, Durrill needed in-home care around the clock. A few months after his health began to decline further Durrill and Gasaway filed a declaration stating that they had been informally married since January 22, 2010. Shortly thereafter On November 14, 2015, Gasaway and Durrill had a small wedding reception at Durrill's home. Durrill’s family was not invited.

During the time he cohabitated with Gassaway, Durrill became alienated from his family resulting in a number of legal disputes between Gassaway and the children. These disputes primarily centered on allegations of undue influence and manipulation of Durrill at the hands of Gassaway and the limited access they had to their father.

As time wore Durrill’s health suffered further. He was eventually admitted to the hospital on April 6, 2016, for kidney failure and dehydration. He died two days later.

After their father’s death, Durrill’s children filed an application to probate his 2004 will. After the application to probate the will was submitted it was discovered that Durrill had also executed a 2014 codicil that granted Gasaway a twenty percent interest in some assets of Durrill's estate, a life estate in Durrill's house and furnishings, as well as ownership of funeral plots next to him. The children amended their application to probate the will to include the codicil on May 2, 2016, the same day the codicil was filed in the probate proceedings.

Durrill’s children petitioned the court to declare their father’s marriage to Gasaway void, arguing that Durrill did not have the mental capacity to enter a marriage. The petition to void the marriage would effectively prevent Gassaway from receiving any bequests under the will or the subsequent codicil. 

Chapter 123 of the Texas Estates Code establishes a procedure to declare certain marriages void after the death of one spouse: 

(a) Subject to Subsection (c), if a proceeding described by Section 123.101(a) is not pending on the date of a decedent's death, an interested person may file an application with the court requesting that the court void the marriage of the decedent if:

(1) on the date of the decedent's death, the decedent was married; and

(2) that marriage commenced not earlier than three years before the date of the decedent's death.

(b) The notice applicable to a proceeding for a declaratory judgment under Chapter 37, Civil Practice and Remedies Code, applies to a proceeding under Subsection (a).

(c) An application authorized by Subsection (a) may not be filed after the first anniversary of the date of the decedent's death.

Further, the children sought a finding that the alleged informal marriage between their father and Gassaway did not meet the legal requirements of an informal marriage under Texas Law.   

After a two-week jury trial, the trial court granted a directed verdict in favor of Durrill’s children. The court ruled that no informal marriage existed between Gasaway and Durrill before November 2, 2015. The trial court cited the legal requirement that a couple who claim informal marriage must hold themselves out as married to the community or execute a signed declaration of their marriage. Evidence presented at trial showed the couple did not hold themselves out as married before November 2, 2015, at which time a marriage declaration was made.

This ruling was premised on a jury finding that Durrill did not have the mental capacity to enter a marriage on November 2, 2015 and did not thereafter gain the mental capacity to recognize a marriage relationship thus the Declaration that Durrill and Gasaway signed was voided. Gasaway appealed the ruling.

The appeals court upheld the trial court’s findings that an informal marriage did not exist and the marriage declaration made by the couple on November 2, 2015 was also void given testimony from a treating physician that showed the decedent’s executive functioning was severely impaired and he suffered from diminished mental capacity resulting in a high risk for undue influence or manipulation.

J. Michael Young