7/18/2013 9:55:00 AM,
Jeff D. Gorman
(CN) - A man who married in secret by checking his allegedly incapacitated bride out of a nursing home may not be entitled to her estate, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled.
Nancy Ellen Laubenheimer died at Virginia Highlands Health and Rehabilitation Center in February 2009 while her stepdaughter, Patricia Mudlaff, was petitioning for permanent guardianship.
Though Laubenheimer had never adopted Mudlaff or her two siblings, she had been married to their father for 30 years before his death in 2001. Laubenheimer's will in 1999 said the bulk of her estate should go to those three children if her husband predeceased her.
Joseph McLeod moved in with Laubenheimer some time later. Laubenheimer's failing health included a series of strokes, diabetes, renal failure and hypertension. Six months before Laubenheimer was judged by doctors as incapacitated and admitted to a nursing home in October 2008, a nurse had told the sheriff's department that a man named "Clark McLeod" was not letting Laubenheimer get the care she required.
Laubenheimer had been in the nursing home just two or three weeks when McLeod removed her twice to obtain a marriage license and then get married at the courthouse.
"McLeod did not inform Laubenheimer's family, friends, doctors, or social workers about the wedding," the ruling states. "A representative of a medical insurance carrier for Laubenheimer was the first to communicate the marriage of Laubenheimer and McLeod to a member of the Virginia Highlands staff."
After Laubenheimer's death, McLeod and her step-children separately petitioned for administration of her estate and to be appointed as personal representatives. McLeod argued that he was the sole heir to Laubenheimer's estate because her 1999 will was invalid. The step-children argued that McLeod had no rights whatsoever because his marriage to Laubenheimer was invalid.
A Washington County judge sided with McLeod after finding that the court had not other option to void Laubenheimer's marriage but though annulment, which is not possible when one of the parties has died.
A five-justice majority of Wisconsin Supreme Court disagreed Friday on certification from the Court of Appeals.
A marriage can also be voided, even after a spouse's death, if the marriage was prohibited by law, according to the ruling.
"There is no evidence that the Legislature sought to curtail a court's power to address fraud, mistake and other exigencies in a disputed marriage in order to 'declare rights, status and other legal relations," Justice David Prosser wrote for the majority, quoting the annulment statute.
"Limiting a court's power to address these issues would effectively shut off declaratory remedies for parties in an estate action," he added.
While declining to rule on the validity of the marriage, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the trial court does have jurisdiction to tackle the issue.
"On remand, the marriage between Laubenheimer and McLeod will be presumed valid, and the objectors will have the burden of proving it is void by clear and convincing evidence," Prosser wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Annette Kinsgland Ziegler faulted the majority for not setting "forth the burden of proof that the challenger must meet, nor does it sufficiently address the practical evidentiary concerns raised by the circuit court."
Justice Michael Gabelman also dissented.
"Annulment is the only process for invalidating a marriage other than divorce, as per the Legislature's wishes, and that process cannot be undertaken after the death of a spouse," Gabelman wrote.