Unlawful Marriages and the Right of Election
February 16, 2012
Under New York law, a decedent is prohibited from disinheriting his or her surviving spouse (see Margaret Valentine Turano, Practice Commentaries: EPTL § 5-1.1-A [1999 ed.]). Consistent with that prohibition, the laws of this state provide that a decedent’s surviving spouse has a personal right of election to take a portion of the decedent’s estate, whether or not the decedent provides for the spouse in his or her last will and testament (see EPTL § 5-1.1-A). Predictably, the right of election has given rise to extensive litigation, as evidenced by Suffolk County Surrogate John M. Czygier, Jr.’s recent decision in Matter of Newman (see Matter of Newman, 883 P 2007/A, NYLJ 1202520804987 [Sur Ct, Suffolk County Nov. 1, 2011]). As discussed below, Newman is noteworthy because it addresses the extent to which a judicial determination that the alleged surviving spouse’s marriage to the decedent was unlawful will affect the spouse’s right to elect against the decedent’s estate.
EPTL § 5-1.1-A provides that the surviving spouse of a decedent who dies on or after September 1, 1992, has a personal right to elect against the decedent’s estate (see EPTL § 5-1.1-A), unless it is established that the marriage upon which the surviving spouse relies was incestuous, bigamous, or a prohibited remarriage under the Domestic Relations Law (see Newman, supra). The financial consequences of a surviving spouse asserting elective share rights can be substantial, as the pecuniary value of the elective share is equal to “the greater of (i) fifty thousand dollars or, if the capital value of the [decedent’s] net estate is less than fifty thousand dollars, such capital value, or (ii) one third of the net estate” (see EPTL § 5-1.1-A).
In Newman, the decedent’s alleged surviving spouse, Kenneth Newman (“Kenneth”), sought to exercise his elective share rights against the decedent’s estate (see Newman, supra). After the decedent’s will was admitted to probate, the fiduciary of her estate commenced a proceeding to determine the validity of Kenneth’s election against the estate (see id.). Kenneth died before the matter was resolved, and the executor of the decedent’s estate ultimately moved for summary judgment concerning Kenneth’s notice of election (see id.).
Surrogate Czygier held that Kenneth’s notice of election was invalid, as his marriage to the decedent was unlawful (see id.). In reaching that conclusion, the Surrogate found that, at the time he allegedly married the decedent, Kenneth had not yet divorced (and, thus, was still married to) his first wife (see id.). Absent evidence that Kenneth and the decedent “remarried” after Kenneth divorced his first wife, the executor of the decedent’s estate presented sufficient evidence to rebut the presumption that Kenneth’s “second marriage [was] valid and that the prior marriage was dissolved by death, divorce, or annulment” (see id.). Accordingly, as Kenneth’s marriage to the decedent was unlawful, his notice of election was void and unenforceable (see id.).
In sum, while a surviving spouse generally has a right to elect against a decedent’s estate, that right is not absolute (see Matter of Berk, 71 AD3d 883 [2d Dep’t 2010]). To the extent that the surviving spouse’s marriage to the decedent is unlawful, the survivor will not receive his or her elective share.