In our articles, we try to avoid writing about people dying. Our goal is to make family law lighthearted and less intimidating, which is pretty hard to do when you’re writing about an old geezer who kicked the bucket and left behind a bereaved brood.
But alas, we live in a world where more than half a million people downloaded a fidget spinner simulator to their phones -- so maybe it’s time to give up on journalistic integrity. Let’s dive right into death and divorce.
Like most states, Washington has detailed laws about how an estate is divided up when a person dies. And in most cases, the outcome is determined by whether or not the person was married.
But what happens when the state can’t determine the deceased’s marital status?
On May 28, 2010, Gary Coleman passed away after a horrific slip and fall in his home. Just days after his death, Coleman’s funeral was postponed because disputes had arisen regarding which of his three conflicting wills should be enforced.
He didn’t have much in the way of assets, but that wasn’t what made his ex-wife’s claim so strange. It was how she justified it.
Gary and Shannon Price wed in early 2008 only to appear on Divorce Court to air their dirty laundry just a few months later. The split extended beyond the realm of daytime reality TV and Coleman even went so far as to get a restraining order.
Ms. Price contended that after the divorce and before Gary’s death, the two had continued living together and met their state’s definition of a common-law marriage (referred to as a committed intimate relationship in Washington).
A lengthy court battle eventually revealed that Shannon was openly sleeping with another man during her “common-law marriage” to Gary. But what if her deception hadn’t come to light? Could she have inherited his estate after divorcing him in between reruns of Maury and Slap Chop® infomercials?
Washington has interpreted inheritance for committed intimate relationships in different ways. So if you and a loved one are morally opposed to marriage, make sure to speak to an attorney about who will get your collection of fidget spinners when you die.
Never technically married
On Christmas Day 2006, legendary musician James Brown died and left a chunk of his wealth to charity. Sadly, not everyone in Brown’s family appreciated his philanthropy, especially his...ex-girlfriend/wife/ex-wife.
We’re still not really sure how to classify Tomi Rae Hynie’s relationship with James Brown, despite half a dozen court cases.
See, the couple married in 2002, but it was later discovered that Hynie had never divorced her previous husband. Mr. Brown attempted to annul the marriage after learning of her omission, but didn’t finish the paperwork before he died. As Hynie’s claim has moved through the courts, most judges ruled her marriage to Brown null and void.
But in an almost impossible-to-follow legal plot twist, the most recent case invalidated Hynie’s first marriage because that husband (a Bangladeshi in need of a Green Card) was also married when he and Tomi Rae filed paperwork for their nuptials -- making that marriage...nuller and voider (excuse our lawyer speak).
So, Hynie was a free woman when she married the Godfather of Soul, and he never finalized his attempt to divorce her. Despite Brown purchasing a full-page ad in Variety to announce their breakup before his death, there’s a good chance Hynie will be considered his wife and receive millions from his estate.
So much for “til death do us part.”
Long before Janet Jackson attempted to get married without anyone knowing to three different men, another celebrity took her own approach to the secret wedding racket.
American actress Terry Moore claims that she privately married Howard Hughes in 1949 and that the two had never divorced.
Now, anyone with a G.E.D. and five minutes of spare time will recognize this is a pretty questionable legal claim. First, Ms. Moore says she was married to Hughes by a ship captain while in international waters...and that Hughes had the ship’s log destroyed to hide their tracks. Hard to believe, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.
Ms. Moore also claimed that she broke up with (but did not divorce) Hughes in 1956 because of his cheating. That’s an awfully suspect claim considering that from 1949 to 1956, she was legally married twice (both times on land and well documented). And if that wasn’t enough, she managed to add another husband to her collection before Howard passed.
The courts rejected her claim in what we can only assume was less time than it took us to write this article. However, heirs of Howard Hughes agreed to settle Terry’s claim to the estate with a sum of somewhere between $350k and $10 million.
So don’t forget, a judge isn’t the only person who can misinterpret a bogus marriage claim!
The solution to void, secret, and limbo marriages
If you thought all this discussion of death was depressing, we’re about to make your day a whole lot worse. In the state of Washington, inheritance doesn’t apply only to assets, it also applies to debt. If the status of your divorce is in question, you could be on the hook for the loan your ex took out to invest in unicorn-themed fidget spinners.
Don’t worry though, you don’t need to appear on daytime reality TV to handle your family law cases affordably -- just call us!