The validity of a decedent’s marriage is a topic that is litigated in Surrogate’s Courts with increasing frequency. A determination on the issue has multiple implications for those interested in an estate, including the surviving spouse’s right to an elective share, distributee status and consequential standing of other family members to participate in probate proceedings if the marriage were invalid, and priority in obtaining letters of administration. In the recent case of Matter of Cheek, decided by Surrogate Holzman of Bronx County, the decedent’s sister – motivated, at least in part, to obtain distributee status - challenged the validity of her brother’s marriage to the respondent as a basis to vacate a stipulation of settlement.
Specifically, the decedent’s sister, who had previously commenced a proceeding alleging that she was a creditor of the estate, sought to vacate the stipulation that had previously been entered into on the record in open court, settling her claim. She alleged that she had been in an emotional and volatile state when the agreement was made because it occurred on the one year anniversary of the decedent’s death. She further argued that the agreement was void based upon a mutual mistake of fact regarding the validity of the decedent’s marriage at the time of his death. To this extent, the sister alleged that after entering into the agreement, she learned that the decedent’s divorce from his first wife had been invalid, thus rendering his second marriage to the respondent invalid as well. The sister further claimed that the invalidity of the marriage eliminated the respondent’s status as sole distributee of the estate, and meant that either she or the first spouse, if living, were the sole distributees.
Opposing the sister’s application, the respondent provided an original certified copy of her marriage certificate, which recognized the decedent’s divorce from his first wife. The respondent further alleged that the sister lacked standing to contest the validity of her marriage; but even if standing existed, the decedent’s first wife, not his sister, would be the sole distributee. The respondent additionally asserted that there existed no grounds to vacate the stipulation of settlement for mutual mistake inasmuch as she had provided proof of her marriage, and the sister provided no proof to the contrary.
In response to the foregoing, the court explained that an original certificate of marriage in New York is generally prima facie evidence that the marriage existed (id., citing CPLR 4526), and also stated that absent contrary evidence, there exists a presumption of the validity of a second marriage; the burden of proving otherwise lies with those who assert it. The court went on to state that that burden is even greater where the party challenging the validity is a stranger to the marriage, such as the sister in the subject case (id. relying on Matter of Esmond v Lyons Bar & Grill, 26 AD2d 884 [3d Dept 1966]).
The court further explained the longstanding rule that “stipulations of settlement are favored by the courts and not lightly cast aside” (Hallock v State of New York, 64 NY2d 224 ), “particularly where, as here the stipulation was entered on the record in open court, its terms are unambiguous, the parties were represented by counsel, and the court conducted a proper allocution of the petitioner and determined that she voluntarily and knowingly accepted the terms of the stipulation’” (Matter of Cheek, quoting Matter of Siegel, 29 AD914, 915 [2d Dept 2006]). Considering the sister’s allegations – which the court characterized as conclusory – in view of that standard, the court opined that there was no basis to vacate the stipulation of settlement.
The holding in Cheek is not surprising given the high standard one must meet to vacate a valid stipulation of settlement. Indeed, “only where there is cause sufficient to invalidate a contract, such as fraud, collusion, mistake or accident, will a party be relieved of the consequences of a stipulation made during litigation” (Hallock v State of New York, 64 NY2d 224, 230 ). Nonetheless, the court refused the respondent's request for affirmative relief of attorney’s fees against the sister in connection with her application for vacatur, and despite describing her allegations as conclusory, opined that it had not been a frivolous proceeding.