Saturday, October 3, 2009

California Court Rules Daughter Cannot Annul Father Richard Pryor's Marriage Or Set Aside Bequests To Stepmother After His Death

On September 28, 2009, the California Court of Appeal issued two companion decisions relating to the estate of Grammy award-winning comedian and actor Richard Pryor.

The court rejected an attempt by Pryor's eldest daughter Elizabeth to annul her father’s marriage to stepmother Jennifer Pryor and void certain gifts and bequests to her stepmother. The daughter's goal was to invalidate Pryor's most recent will and reinstate an earlier will in which he split his fortune between his six children. The Pryor probate litigation has been pending for more than four years.

Richard Pryor married Jennifer Pryor in 1981 and they divorced one year later. Shortly thereafter, Richard Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his condition began to deteriorate. His ex-wife Jennifer Pryor became Richard Pryor’s care custodian in 1994. At that time, there was an earlier will in place in which he split his fortune between his six children.

In 2001, Richard and Jennifer Pryor were remarried pursuant to a confidential marriage license. Elizabeth Pryor apparently did not learn of this marriage until after her father died of a heart attack in 2005. By this time -- both before and after his remarriage -- Richard Pryor had revised his estate plan to leave substantial assets to Jennifer Pryor rather than his six children.

After his death, daughter Elizabeth prior filed two actions. First, styling herself as successor in interest to her father, she petitioned to annul the marriage under Family Code Sec. 2211(d) on the grounds of fraud. She claimed her father's signature on the marriage certificate was forged.

Second, she filed a probate proceeding seeking to set aside various gifts, bequests, and transfers of property or assets made by her father to Jennifer between 1994 and 2005. Legally, she was seeking to use Probate Code Section 21350 to presumptively disqualify Jennifer, who was a care custodian, from receiving a donative transfer from a dependent or elder adult. Elizabeth argued that her stepmother Jennifer may not invoke the spousal exception to this presumption because the marriage was the product of undue influence and fraud.

Elizabeth did not win on either ground in the family law or probate courts. The same judge presided over both matters in the superior court. She then appealed.

On appeal, Elizabeth lost both cases. In the family law matter which is the subject of a companion appeal, Pryor v. Pryor (No. B207398), the Court of Appeal affirmed the denial of Elizabeth's petition to annul the 2001 marriage between Jennifer and Richard on the ground of fraud.

In the probate matter, the Court of Appeal declined to recognize an exception to the rule under Probate Code Section 21350 that a spouse may receive a donative transfer from a dependent or elder adult for marriages allegedly obtained by fraud and undue influence. The appellate court found no support in the language of section 21351, subdivision (a), or in the legislative history, which would make the spousal exception to the presumption of invalidity unavailable to a spouse who allegedly persuaded the transferor to marry through undue influence or fraud.

A copy of Estate of Pryor, CA Court of Appeal, 2nd Appellate District, Div. 4, Case No. B207402 can be found at:

Attorney Comments: First, this case brings to light the conflict that can exist between children of a prior marriage and a stepparent. Second, the failure to disclose to the children the marriage and the changes to the will or estate plan can also increase the likelihood of probate litigation.

Third, there are ways to document that there is no incapacity or fraud. For example, doctors can be used to assess the capacity of a person to make a will or trust. In some cases, there can be limited ability to speak (which happens in some advanced muscular sclerosis cases).

Because most trouble arises from disappointed potential beneficiaries, a doctor (such as a psychiatrist or neurologist specializing in geriatrics) as part of his examination should ask whether the testator has ever made a will before and who is now going to be excluded and why. Doctors and attorneys must understand the legal tests for testamentary capacity.

Attorneys can also document these issues and show their client's intent and capacity in that they understand their prior wills, their assets and the proposed disposition. Videotaping may be used to help prevent accusations of forgeries at a later date. In other words, good planning can help minimize the risks of probate litigation after the death of a loved one and provide strong evidence in the event of a challenge.

Posted by Henry Moravec, III. Any questions or comments should be directed to: hm@moravecslaw.com or (626) 793-3210. The firm website is http://www.moravecslaw.com/