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Estate of Crockett v. Crockett

April 12, 2000

IN RE ESTATE OF DAVID C. CROCKETT, DECEASED
(NATASHA CROCKETT AND DAVID CROCKETT,
PETITIONERS-APPELLANTS,
V.
LAVERNE CROCKETT, PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE,
RESPONDENT-APPELLEE).



Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Clair County. No. 97-P-463 Honorable Robert J. Hillebrand, Judge, presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Goldenhersh

Can a third party challenge the validity of a marriage after the death of one of the parties to the marriage? Petitioners, Natasha and David Crockett, appeal the trial court's decision to dismiss their claim against respondent, Laverne Crockett, for failure to state a cause of action. Petitioners raise two issues on appeal: (1) whether their petition to vacate the order appointing a personal representative, to revoke letters of administration issued pursuant thereto, to terminate independent administration, to appoint a successor administrator, and to amend the declaration of heirship stated a cause of action for the removal of respondent as personal representative and for the exclusion of respondent as an heir, because she was not the decedent's wife, and (2) whether petitioners should have been granted leave to allege a constructive-trust theory. A timely notice of appeal was filed on November 28, 1998.

I. FACTS

Decedent died on April 30, 1997. Natasha Crockett and David Crockett, children from decedent's previous marriage to Peggy Crockett (dissolution of marriage in 1991), survived him. His wife, Laverne Crockett, survived him as his widow. This appeal concerns the validity of decedent's marriage to Laverne.

Decedent and Laverne were married on April 26, 1997. At the time, decedent suffered from an inoperable malignant brain tumor. The county clerk's office had issued decedent and Laverne a marriage license; however, decedent's physical condition prevented him from signing the application in the presence of either the county clerk or one of his deputies. Decedent never appeared before the county clerk. Both an appearance and a signature in the presence of the county clerk are required by the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (hereinafter the Dissolution Act). 750 ILCS 5/203 (West 1996). At the alleged ceremony, decedent did not respond because of his brain tumor, and a third party was used to acknowledge the marriage vows. Decedent died four days after the alleged ceremony.

On July 29, 1997, Laverne filed a petition for letters of administration of decedent's estate. The petition alleged her status as decedent's wife and requested she be issued letters of administration. The trial court entered an order declaring Laverne, Natasha, and David as decedent's heirs at law. On January 21, 1998, Natasha and David filed a petition requesting the court (1) to vacate the order appointing personal representative, (2) to revoke the letters of administration issued pursuant thereto, (3) to terminate independent administration, (4) to appoint a successor administrator, and (5) to amend the declaration of heirship. The petition specifically sought (1) to vacate the July 29, 1997, order appointing a personal representative, (2) to revoke the letters of administration entered pursuant to the July 29, 1997, order, (3) to appoint Natasha Crockett as administrator of the estate, and (4) to find that, at his death, decedent left Natasha and David Crockett as his only heirs at law. Petitioners contend the marriage never took place because decedent never consented at the ceremony and, therefore, never complied with the formal requirements of solemnization under the Dissolution Act (750 ILCS 5/209 (West 1996)).

Both parties submitted memoranda in support of their position that the petition did or did not state a cause of action. Respondent argued that the petition did not state a cause of action because the requirements to attack the validity of a marriage were not fulfilled (see 750 ILCS 5/301 (West 1996)). In response, petitioners requested leave to amend their petition to allege a constructive-trust theory. On September 29, 1998, the trial court entered an order striking the petition with prejudice, to the extent it sought to remove Laverne as the representative on the ground that she was not his spouse and because petitioners failed to comply with the requirements for declaring a marriage invalid. According to Part III of the Dissolution Act, parties have standing to challenge the validity of a marriage only for lack of capacity, fraud, or duress, and they are barred from filing suit by a 90-day time limitation or by the death of either party to the alleged marriage. 750 ILCS 5/302 (West 1996). The court held that since decedent died before petitioners instituted the challenge, the case is moot. On October 28, 1998, petitioners filed a motion to reconsider, modify, or vacate the September 29, 1998, order. The trial court denied that motion and all remaining motions of petitioners, including their request to amend the petition to allege a constructive-trust theory. Petitioners filed a timely notice of appeal on November 28, 1998.

II. ANALYSIS

Marriage is a civil contract with three interested parties: the husband, the wife, and the State. See Jambrone v. David, 16 Ill. 2d 32, 35, 156 N.E.2d 569, 571 (1959); Hewitt v. Hewitt, 77 Ill. 2d 49, 63, 394 N.E.2d 1204, 1210 (1979). In order to legally marry in Illinois, the husband and wife must fulfill the requirements and formalities set out in the Dissolution Act. The parties must be a man and a woman, of age, and freely consent to the contract. See 750 ILCS 5/201 (West 1996). Parties wishing to marry must obtain a license to marry from the county clerk's office of the county in which they intend to marry. Both parties must be present before the county clerk or one of his deputies, and both must sign the license application. 750 ILCS 5/203 (West 1996). The next step is solemnization and registration. The parties must go before a duly authorized officiate and, after consenting to marry, must file the marriage certificate with the county clerk's office within 10 days of the ceremony. 750 ILCS 5/209 (West 1996). If all of these requirements are met, the parties are legally married.

In order to challenge the validity of a marriage, the challenging parties must overcome the presumption of validity that Illinois confers upon a marriage. See Baer v. De Berry, 31 Ill. App. 2d 86, 89, 175 N.E.2d 673, 674-75 (1961). Either party may challenge the validity of a marriage by reason of duress, fraud, lack of consent, or lack of mental or physical capacity. 750 ILCS 5/301 (West 1996). In the event one party is legally incompetent, that person's guardian may bring an action under section 301 of the Dissolution Act (750 ILCS 5/301 (West 1996)). However, an action to challenge the validity of a marriage must be brought within 90 days of the moving party becoming aware of the defect or before either party to the marriage dies. 750 ILCS 5/302 (West 1996). This is the essence of the case before us: Can decedent's heirs challenge after his death an obviously questionable marriage? Part III of the Dissolution Act says no; however, Did the marriage ceremony in question fulfill the statutory requirements of the Dissolution Act warranting the presumption of validity? If it did not, then decedent's heirs have standing to challenge the fact of the marriage in any court proceeding even after decedent's death. See Barber v. People, 203 Ill. 543, 546-47, 68 N.E. 93, 94 (1903).

Petitioners argue that the marriage is void ab initio. During oral argument, petitioners' counsel alleged that there is a videotape of the ceremony that will demonstrate that decedent never consented to the marriage. They further contend that decedent was so infirm at the time of the ceremony that he was not consciously aware of his environment at the time of solemnization. He did not answer the officiate; another party kneeling next to him answered for him. He did not sign the marriage license; only respondent went to the county clerk's office to obtain the marriage license. Because of the condition of decedent and the fact there is evidence he did not participate in the solemnization, petitioners allege the marriage never existed and can be attacked in any proceeding, even after the death of the party. See Barber, 203 Ill. at 546-47, 68 N.E. at 94. Petitioners argue they are not limited to Part III of the Dissolution Act to challenge the validity of a marriage.

Respondent, on the other hand, argues that no matter how petitioners frame their argument, they are still challenging the validity of a marriage for lack of capacity. Respondent argues that the avenue the General Assembly enacted to pursue such an attack is Part III of the Dissolution Act and that, consequently, they are barred from asserting a cause of action because of the death of the husband. See 750 ILCS 5/302 (West 1996). Respondent concedes that while this result may seem harsh and/or unfair, the legislature has created the system and the courts cannot ignore the statutes. Respondent asserts that the only way to address the potential loophole is for the General Assembly to close it.

The key issue in this case is whether the marriage is void or voidable. A voidable marriage is one that is potentially invalid but, until it is judicially determined invalid, is completely valid for all purposes. See 52 Am. Jur. 2d Marriage §105 (1970); 8 Ill. Jur. Marriage & Dissolution §1:11 (1993). A void marriage is ineffectual to alter the marital status of either party. No judicial proceeding or decrees are required to establish its invalidity. See 52 Am. Jur. 2d Marriage §105 (1970); 8 Ill. Jur. Marriage & Dissolution §1:11 (1993). The supreme court addressed this distinction in Barber:

"'A void marriage is a mere nullity, and its validity may be impeached in any court, whether the question arise[s] directly or collaterally and whether the parties be living or dead; but a voidable marriage is valid, for all civil purposes, until a competent tribunal has pronounced the sentence of nullity, upon direct proceedings instituted for the purpose of setting the marriage ...


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