Mental Capacity and Marriage in New York, Part 1: Background to the Issue

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.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form.   I will get back to you promptly.

Bobby Fischer’s Endgame: The Perils of Dying Without a Will

When Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship from Boris Spassky in 1972 in Reykjavík, Iceland, no one could have predicted that this location would become the site of yet another contest involving Fischer, this time a posthumous battle over his $2 million estate. Once a resident of Brooklyn, Fischer’s U.S. passport had been revoked in 2004 following some incendiary anti-American and anti-Semitic remarks (though Fischer himself was Jewish). The following year, Iceland granted him citizenship. He died in Iceland in 2008 without a Will (intestate).

According to the New York Times, there are four claimants to Fischer’s estate: Jinky Young, Fischer’s presumed daughter filing through her mother Marilyn; Miyoko Watai, who claims that she was married to Fischer, and Alexander and Nicholas Targ, Fischer’s nephews through his sister Joan.

Last month, Iceland’s Supreme Court ordered the exhumation of Bobby Fischer’s body in order to determine the legitimacy of Jinky Young’s paternity claims. The body was exhumed today and DNA samples were taken. If the DNA samples establish Fischer’s paternity, then Jinky Young will be declared his legal heir under Icelandic law.

All of the claimants have retained legal counsel to represent their interests in Iceland and, depending upon the results, these legal costs may never be recovered. All of this could have been avoided had Fischer drafted a valid Will expressing his final wishes. He could have made provisions for all of his loved ones, avoiding for them this long, protracted, and costly legal battle.

Your estate may not be the size of Bobby Fischer’s, but you likely have loved ones to whom you would like to leave bequests. Don’t put off the decision to make a valid Will. Consult with an attorney who will assist you in drafting a document that meets your unique needs.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form.   I will get back to you promptly.

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.

What is the Difference between an Heir and a Beneficiary?

In everyday life, you will often hear people speak about their hope for an inheritance from a family member or relative.  However, this commonplace use of the term “inheritance” often masks a misunderstanding of the law and can lead to unintended consequences when misplaced assumptions are not addressed.  Today we are going to examine exactly what the term “inheritance” means from a legal standpoint, and how having a Will takes uncertainty out of the equation.

What defines an “heir”?  Strictly speaking, one is not an “heir” of a living person.  That is because the exact identity of an “heir” is determined at the time of the decedent’s death.  The determination is made by the laws of the jurisdiction, and not by the decedent.  An “heir,” then, is a legal creation and its terms are defined by a State.  One becomes an heir by virtue of satisfying the definition in a statute.  In New York, that statute is EPTL § 4-1.1. That is because New York  has an interest in the smooth transfer of property from one generation to the next.  As such, an “heir” is the statutory recipient of property from a decedent who dies without a Will (intestate).  The State is also the final “heir” in most statutory schemes.  If there are no statutory heir, then the property will go to the State (escheat).  In New York, a person who inherits property under intestate succession is called a distributee.

New York also has a “laughing heir” statute (EPTL §4-1.1(6)).  A “laughing heir” is someone entitled to inherit by law who is so remotely connected to the deceased that he or she would not feel any sorrow at hearing of the death.  To prevent this occurrence, New York cuts off heirs at the grandchildren of the deceased:  “For the purposes of this subparagraph, issue of grandparents shall not include issue more remote than grandchildren of such grandparents.”  No one more remote, such as a great-grandchild, may inherit.  After that, the property of the deceased escheats to the State.

When a person dies without a Will, New York uses as its default an intestate distribution system called per capita (“each head”) at each generation.  In this system, each person is weighed equally.  By virtue of their presence on the family tree, no one can be disinherited.  The first thing we have to do is determine the number of surviving distributees. To illustrate: Beth is a single person who dies without a Will.  She had two sons named Luke and Dick, and a daughter named Nancy.  Luke had two children, Bill and Jane, and Nancy had one child named Jim, and Dick had two children named Sandy and Sam.

At the time of Beth’s death, Luke had already predeceased her.  Had Luke been alive, he, Nancy and Dick would have each received 1/3 of the estate.  Because Luke has already died, Nancy and Dick each receive their 1/3 share, and Luke’s children divided what would have been their father’s share equally between them.  So Nancy receives 1/3, Dick receives 1/3 , and Bill and Jane each receive 1/6.   

Depending upon your family situation, the New York default system of distribution may not suit your needs.  In that case, you may want to draft a Will stipulating that you want your estate distributed per stirpes (“by each branch”) to give you more control over the outcome.  In New York, a person who receives under a Will is called a beneficiary.  Let’s say that you want your great-grandchild to receive something from your estate.  Drafting a Will eliminates the “laughing heir” statute and allows you to leave something to your great-grandchildren.  A Will also allows you to distribute your estate to a class of beneficiaries, such as “to all my children” or “to all of my grandchildren” to cover any issue born or adopted after the execution the Will (pretermitted child).  The class closes at the time of the death of the testator.

Finally, instead of having your estate possibly escheat to the State, you can name a person unrelated to you or a charity as a beneficiary of your residuary estate.  Your property can then be used in a way that is consistent with your life and beliefs.  You should seek the advice on an attorney in drafting a Will so that your wishes are reflected in the resulting document.

If you would like to discuss your own personal situation with me, you can get a free 30-minute consultation simply by filling out this contact form.   I will get back to you promptly.

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.