Elder financial abuse is rampant. The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau reports that $1.7 billion of suspicious financial activity involving seniors was flagged by U.S. financial institutions in 2017. This, of course, is the tip of the iceberg and only reflects institutions that are required to report. Much elder financial abuse goes unreported, especially abuse that involves family members. That is why it is important to seek legal guidance from a skilled Maryland estate planning lawyer who can help ensure that neither you nor your loved ones are taken advantage of by others.
Marriage as Financial Abuse
A small subset of elder financial abuse involves marriage as financial abuse. I know that this sounds like a Rodney Dangerfield routine, but it actually is a growing real-world issue. In one case making the news in Southern California (where else?), a stepdaughter went so far as to dress as her deceased mother, using her mother’s clothing to hoodwink her stepfather into a marriage. That case has to win the “most creepy” award for this kind of elder financial abuse. Once married, the spouse is positioned to seek the elective share and/or obtain other economic benefits flowing from the marriage.
Under common law, it is difficult to directly attack the validity of such a marriage. There is extremely limited standing for anyone to set aside a marriage, other than the participants themselves. In Morris v. Goodwin, 230 Md.App. 395 (2016), cert. dismissed at 451 Md. 587 (2017), the Court held that a personal representative of an estate had no standing to annul a marriage based on fraud. In that case, the Court drew a bright line distinction between voidable marriages (such as that based on fraud or undue influence) and void marriages (such as invalid due to bigamy). Voidable marriages can only be challenged while the married parties are still alive.
A recent Court of Special Appeals case, however, opens the possibility that although no one other than the participants may attack a voidable marriage, the conduct of the surviving spouse in securing the marriage may be so egregious as to preclude that spouse from taking the spousal election. In that case, a widower was thrown into a major depressive disorder due to the death of his wife of many years. At the point of extreme vulnerability, another woman procured the marriage to the widower based on duress and undue influence.
The widower had residences in Maryland and Florida and the wedding took place in Florida. Under Florida statutory law, “a surviving spouse who is found to have procured a marriage to the decedent by fraud, duress, or undue influence is not entitled to … any rights or benefits under the Florida Probate Code including, but not limited to, entitlement to elective share or family allowance …” It was on this basis that the Prince Georges County Orphans’ Court held that the marriage that was a product of undue influence precluded the surviving spouse from any elective share rights. The Court of Special Appeals, however, held that Maryland was the domicile of the decedent and that it was the state of domicile, not the location of the marriage, that controlled the post-death marital benefits.
The Doctrine of Unclean Hands
The Court of Special Appeals, however, held that the Florida statute simply codified the “well-established common law doctrine of unclean hands, recognized by Maryland.” Under the equitable unclean hands doctrine, the Court of Special Appeals upheld the Prince Georges County ruling. The doctrine of unclean hands is applied not for the protection of the parties nor as punishment for a wrongdoer, but it is intended to protect the courts from having to endorse or reward inequitable conduct. Because the alleged misconduct is directly connected with the transaction upon which the claimant sought relief, the unclean hands doctrine precluded her from receiving the elective share under Maryland law.
The Court of Special Appeals upheld the Orphans’ Court ruling that the surviving spouse exercised undue influence over the decedent to cause him to marry her for her financial gain. It also observed that if the surviving spouse engaged in the same conduct to have the decedent change his Will, that Will would be set aside on the basis of undue influence. (See In The Matter of Watkins, ___ Md.App. ____, 2019 WL 2281603 (May 29, 2019). This is a reported decision but, as of the writing of this page, the final version of it has not yet been released for publication in the permanent law reports and accordingly is subject to revision or withdrawal.)
A Maryland Estate Planning Lawyer Can Ensure the Law Protects You
Each Maryland estate planning lawyer at our firm stands ready to assist the victims, and the families of victims, of any form of elder financial abuse. Contact us to learn more about your legal options.