A Death-Bed Marriage

The New York Times recently printed an essay written by Judge Lloyd Zimmerman, a state court judge in Minneapolis about an emergency wedding. 

Cheryl is a hospice worker for Thomas, 77, who has been discharged from the medical center hospice unit so he can die at home.  Thomas can no longer talk and communicates entirely through hand squeezes. Thomas’s dying wish is to marry Donna, 57, his life partner for 38 years. For whatever reason, Thomas and Donna never got around to having a wedding.

According to Judge Zimmerman, the wedding license bureau told Cheryl that no one has the power to issue an emergency license by phone, but she could try to reach a judge. In a desperate attempt to make her ailing patient’s wish come true, Cheryl called 16 judges with the hope that she could find a judge willing to perform an emergency wedding.  By luck, Cheryl called Judge Zimmerman’s chambers and Judge Zimmerman personally answered the phone.

By law, a couple to wed is required to attest in person, under oath, in front of the wedding license official that all the statements on their wedding application are true. In Minnesota, like most other states, there are formalities a couple must comply with. Formalities include a 5-day waiting period and an appearance in person at the wedding license bureau. According to Judge Zimmerman, there are no official procedures for obtaining emergency deathbed-wedding licenses.

At the point when Judge Zimmerman received Cheryl’s call, Thomas was near death and a drive to the downtown Minneapolis court was an impossible trip. Therefore, the only plausible option was a telephone wedding.  Although a telephone wedding violated the Minnesota rule which requires the wedding to occur in the presence of the judge, Judge Zimmerman, after some pondering and internal reflections agreed to officiate the telephone ceremony.

Over the phone, the couple promised to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, and swore to Judge Zimmerman the truth of all the statements in the couples’ license. Thomas swore to the truth by squeezing a hospice workers finger yes and signed the application with an “x.” Later that evening, Thomas passed away.

The next day, Judge Zimmerman issued a court order directing the licensing bureau to accept and file the wedding license and issue a certificate of marriage. Judge Zimmerman ended his essay by explaining that while he had written thousands of orders as a judge, this was by far his best.

While this story warms my heart, I can not help but play devil’s advocate. Thomas and Donna had 38 years to plan a wedding, isn’t this last minute frenzy just a tad irresponsible? Poor planning aside, I spent an entire semester in my Wills, Trusts and Estates class reading countless cases about contested inheritances based on “death bed” weddings. It is usually the same fact pattern: dying man or woman marries their partner or care taker and leaves children and next of kin without an inheritance. This death-bed marriage in turn sparks years of litigation fees and utilizes enormous hours of precious judicial resources.

Along these lines, the Wall Street Journal reports that, “[c]hildren of elderly parents have virtually no standing to challenge their parent’s property division as a result of a “deathbed marriage” after the parent’s death. Most states’ probate laws allow widow’s rights to trump any estate plan, even when the marriage was with someone unable to remember saying I do.”

However, some state courts and legislatures have taken action and responded to this issue. The Wall Street Journal also reports that the New York Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of two families of deceased men with dementia who married their caregivers without their families’ knowledge. The court ruled that the two men’s surviving spouses should not receive a share of their deceased husbands’ assets. Moreover, Florida enacted a statute that declares the marriage contract void if one or both parties was not in full command of his or her faculties.

While in Thomas and Donna’s case it appears that their families supported the “death-bed” marriage, the majority of stories do not have such a happy ending.