Estate of Matthews: Successful challenge to marriage
A fairly common scenario in estate litigation involves a claim from a widow to a share of an estate. Often there is a claim of a common law marriage. Texas recognizes common law marriage under some circumstances. Once established, a common law marriage is effectively the same as a formal marriage. Even a formal marriage can be challenged, under limited circumstances. After a person's death, an interested person may petition a court to annual a marriage entered into less than three years before death, by proving that:
on the date the marriage occurred, the decedent did not have the mental capacity to: (1) consent to the marriage; and (2) understand the nature of the marriage ceremony, if a ceremony occurred. Texas Estates Code, Section 123.103
In Estate of Matthews III, the San Antonio Court of Appeals upheld a jury verdict that a decedent did not have sufficient mental capacity to marry. He was a disabled veteran who married his caregiver only ten weeks before he committed suicide. The court of appeals noted that the burden is on the party challenging the marriage to show lack of capacity, which may be shown by circumstantial evidence which includes:
(1) the person's outward conduct, “manifesting an inward and causing condition;” (2) any pre-existing external circumstances tending to produce a special mental condition; and (3) the prior or subsequent existence of a mental condition from which a person's mental capacity (or incapacity) at the time in question may be inferred.
In this case there was conflicting evidence regarding the decedent's capacity. The alleged spouse pointed to medical records containing descriptions of his mental status as “average,” “stable,” “normal,” “fair,” and “good.” On the other hand, an expert testified that decedent suffered from major depression, PTSD, ADD, alcohol abuse, marijuana use, and progressive multiple sclerosis. The medical expert opined that the MS had atrophied decedent's brain and his cognitive function tests indicated prominent deficits, including in executive function. The court of appeals found that the evidence was sufficient to support the jury's finding that the decedent lacked the capacity to consent to marriage and understand the nature of the marriage ceremony. This is often the result when the evidence is conflicting. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with a person marrying their caregiver, such a marriage is naturally going to arouse some suspicion. Given the factually intensive nature of these disputes, it is important to consult with an attorney experienced in evaluating estate litigation matters involving disputed claims of marriage in Texas, whether formal or common law.