Indiana Court of Appeals Upholds Validity of Marriage of Dying Firefighter

The Indiana Court of Appeals has upheld the validity of a marriage between two firefighters, one of whom was dying of cancer. The case was brought by the Estate of Michael David Estridge seeking to annul his marriage to Lana Ann Taylor.

The couple were wed on May 2, 2019, just before Estridge, who was with the Indianapolis Fire Department, began palliative care. He passed away on May 6, 2019. According to the decision, Estridge wanted to ensure that Taylor would receive surviving spouse benefits under his firefighter’s pension. If he passed away unmarried, the surviving spouse benefit would go “back into the till.” Taylor, 36 years his junior, had been serving as his primary caregiver during his illness.

The Estate immediately sought to have the marriage annulled, filing a petition in Marion Superior Court on May 14, 2019. It that alleged Estridge lacked mental capacity and fraud. The court concluded that despite the medication Estridge was on, he was competent to enter into the marriage. The Estate then appealed.

Quoting from the Court of Appeals (internal quotation marks and citations removed to facilitate reading):

  • Our review in this case focuses upon whether the evidence unerringly points to the conclusion that Estridge was mentally incompetent at the time of his marriage to Taylor.
  • Marriage is a civil contract, the validity of which may be challenged in court.
  • The burden rests upon the challenger to prove that a party was incapable of understanding the nature of the marriage contract.
  • The presumption in favor of the validity of a marriage consummated according to the forms of law is one of the strongest known.
  • In support of its argument to declare the marriage void, the Estate requests us to use our equitable powers to correct this unjust result and contends that the public pension system would be adversely affected as every single, terminally ill, unretired firefighter would have the power to bestow a great gift on others who have not been-and could not be-accounted for. If the General Assembly chooses to engraft a qualification onto the marital privilege based on the quality of the marriage it is of course free to do that.
  • Although the legislature statutorily encapsulated the rules for the firefighters’ pension funds, it did not include any limitation on who can be a spouse or the length of time of marriage.
  • Therefore, in the absence of any statutory guidelines to analyze a marriage for quality and quantity attributes such as love, companionship, and length of time, we decline the Estate’s invitation to impose any jurisprudentially.
  • Because the presumption in favor of the validity of a marriage consummated in accordance with the law is one of the strongest known, courts are reluctant to inquire into the quality of a marriage beyond very limited circumstances.
  • Estridge was capable of understanding the nature of the marriage contract he was about to enter into and therefore was mentally competent at the time the marriage was solemnized.
  • Our review of the same evidence does not unerringly lead to a different conclusion.
  • Accordingly, we affirm the trial court’s Order and decline to void the marriage between Estridge and Taylor.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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