In New York, a person is presumed to have the mental capacity to marry. But the standard that defines the mental capacity to marry is very low. The mental capacity required to marry is lower than testamentary capacity, or the capacity to make a Will. In turn, testamentary capacity is lower than the mental capacity required to execute a contract. To put this into perspective, New York requires greater mental capacity to sign an apartment lease than it does to marry someone.
The U.S. Constitution also protects an individual’s right to marry. The U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that the right to marry is a fundamental right. In Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1, 12 (1967), the Court held that the Due Process Clause includes a constitutional right to marry because “freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the pursuit of happiness by free men.” In addition, the Full Faith and Credit Clause in Article IV requires states to credit the “public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings” of sister states, including marriage.
A marriage in New York results in two separate outcomes: the marriage itself, and the property consequences that flow from the marriage. As we will see in this series, there is a loophole in the law that has permitted some unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of elderly individuals with diminished capacity. That is because, while the marriage itself may be annulled or broken, the property consequences of marriage are not necessary severed as a consequence. As we will see in this series, that can result in unintended estate consequences for heirs and distributees, particularly in the area of so-called “deathbed” marriages.
Arguably, the property rights that flow from marriage are much greater than they are for signing an apartment lease even though the mental capacity required to enter into a marriage is significantly lower. Federal property rights that flow from marriage include such things as Social Security survivor benefits for a spouse, and spousal survivorship rights for qualified retirement plans under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) that can only be waived in writing.
Among the New York State property rights for spouses is the right to title property in a tenancy by the entirety. Neither spouse can sell or diminish the 100% share that each owns without the consent of the other. Should a creditor obtain a lien on one spouse’s interest in the property, the lien will only survive if the debtor spouse is the surviving spouse. Otherwise, the lien is extinguished with the death of the debtor spouse. Moreover, the property cannot be reached in a bankruptcy proceeding. New York also has an elective share statute, meaning that a surviving spouse can elect to one-third of the decedent spouse’s estate against the decedent’s Will if there is surviving issue, or one-half of the property if there is no issue. Even if there is no Will, New York’s intestacy statutes provide that a surviving spouse will receive at least one-third of the decedent’s property.
In New York, a marriage can be void from the start (ab initio) due to such reasons as bigamy or an incestuous marriage. In such a case, the marriage is a legal nullity: it never existed from the start. The spouse, the State, or an interested third party can attack the marriage directly or collaterally in court on the ground that it is void. The attack can even take place after the death of one or both spouses. Note that diminished mental capacity is not a ground for voiding a marriage in New York.
A voidable marriage is valid for any civil purpose unless it it attacked by one of the spouses in an action for annulment. The grounds for deeming a marriage as voidable include fraud, duress, temporary or permanent mental incompetence, undue influence, and sham. As concerns mental incompetence in the case of a voidable marriage, Domestic Relations Law § 140 [c] provides that “[a]n action to annul a marriage on the ground that one of the parties thereto was a mentally ill person may be maintained at any time during the continuance of the mental illness, or, after the death of the mentally ill person in that condition, and during the life of the other party to the marriage, by any relative of the mentally ill person who has an interest to avoid the marriage.”
Even if a third party should succeed in proving that there was sufficient evidence of diminished capacity before the marriage took place (for instance, with documented medical evidence showing dementia), the surviving spouse of an annulled marriage may still take against the Will under the right of election or under intestacy. The property stakes are high when one enters into a marriage. They are even higher for the children of aging parents with diminished capacity who find themselves (and their property) prey to unscrupulous persons who will marry them (sometimes in secret) in order to obtain the federal and state property benefits that flow from marriage.
In this series, we will look at how New York courts have dealt with the issue of mental capacity and marriage, especially in cases where the results have been egregious. I invite you to join my list of subscribers to this blog by clicking on “Sign me up!” under Email Subscription on the left-hand side of the page so that you can receive a notification when the next installment has been published. Thank you.
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