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Bedard v. Corliss - 82 Mass. App. Ct. 360, 973 N.E.2d 691 (2012)

Rule:

A person may be estopped from attacking a divorce if his claim is derived from a person who would have been estopped. So a child of a first marriage whose parent has procured an invalid divorce may be held estopped from attacking the validity of the divorce in order to prevent the parent's second spouse from sharing in the parent's estate.

Facts:

In 1983, Ethan B. Corliss and Carol A. Bedard took part in a marriage ceremony in Tijuana, Mexico. The ceremony was conducted by a man holding himself out as an attorney. His secretary acted as a witness. The couple signed papers that were written in Spanish, which they did not understand. A few weeks later, a certificate of marriage written in English was mailed to them at their home in Massachusetts. Corliss and Bedard lived together as husband and wife for 21 years; they had no children together.

Corliss was appointed after Bedard died intestate. Bedard's children, Deborah, Michael, and Michelle, filed a petition to remove Corliss as the administrator of her estate; Corliss, in turn, filed a complaint in equity against them. The probate court, after concluding that the marriage was not valid under Mexican law, and because Massachusetts did not recognize common law marriages, Corliss was not married to Bedard when she died, even though Corliss believed that he was. As a result, the probate court concluded that Corliss could neither be appointed administrator nor inherit as a surviving spouse. 

One of the basis of Corliss' equity case was money in a joint bank account that Corliss and Bedard had opened. Money in the account had come in part from an inheritance Bedard had received from her father. It was Corliss' understanding that Bedard wanted this money to go to her children upon her death. Although Corliss was not legally obligated to do so, he distributed approximately $120,000 to the children from this account. Thus, because the trial court found Corliss had paid the children money from an account he had owned jointly with Bedard, even though those funds were his sole property as surviving joint owner, the children were ordered to repay Corliss in the equity case. Both parties appealed.

Issue:

Were Bedard’s children estopped from challenging the validity of the marriage?

Answer:

Yes

Conclusion:

The appellate court held that as Corliss and Bedard held themselves out as married for over 21 years, and Bedard obtained the benefits of marriage, her children were estopped from challenging the validity of the marriage. In view of this ruling, the appellate court remanded the proceedings to the probate court to revisit its rulings.

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