Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Page 1


C.A.: Child Cannot Void Father’s Marriage, Bequests to Wife

Panel Rejects Claim Comedian Richard Pryor’s Last Marriage Was Fraudulent


By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer


This district’s Court of Appeal yesterday rejected an attempt by the daughter of five-time Grammy award-winning comedian and actor Richard Pryor to annul her father’s marriage to Jennifer Pryor and void certain gifts and bequests to her stepmother.

Div. Four held that Elizabeth Pryor lacked standing to seek an annulment, and declined to recognize an exception to the rule that a spouse may receive a donative transfer from a dependent or elder adult for marriages allegedly obtained by fraud and undue influence.

Richard Pryor married Jennifer Pryor in 1981 and they divorced one year later. Shortly thereafter, Richard Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and his condition began to deteriorate.

Elizabeth Pryor, his eldest daughter, conceded that Jennifer Pryor became Richard Pryor’s care custodian in 1994. In 2001, Richard and Jennifer Pryor were remarried pursuant to a confidential marriage license, although Elizabeth Pryor apparently did not learn of this until after her father’s death in 2005.

Both before and after his remarriage, Richard Pryor revised his estate plan to leave substantial assets to Jennifer Pryor rather than his six children.

Petition to Annul

Styling herself as successor in interest to her father, Elizabeth Pryor subsequently petitioned to annul the marriage under Family Code Sec. 2211(d) on the grounds of fraud. She also filed a probate proceeding seeking to set aside various gifts, bequests, and transfers of property or assets made by her father between 1994 and 2005.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff presided over both matters and found that the nullity action alleging a voidable marriage did not survive the death of Richard Pryor. He also determined that the formally recognized marriage between Richard and Jennifer Pryor created a bright line exempting transfers after that time from attack under Probate Code Sec. 21350.

After Elizabeth Pryor elected not to amend her petition to allege only transfers occurring prior to the marriage, Beckloff dismissed the probate action as well.

Presiding Justice Norman L. Epstein wrote companion decisions in the two cases on appeal.

In the family law matter, Epstein rejected Elizabeth Pryor’s argument that de novo review was appropriate, explaining that questions of statutory interpretation are subject to de novo review but the standard of review for a question of annulment is substantial evidence.

As Elizabeth Pryor acknowledged a marriage license was issued but asserted her father’s signature on it was forged, Epstein said the action was governed by Family Code Sec. 2210, which provided that a marriage may be voidable if obtained by fraud.

But he noted that Sec. 2211 provides that an action to obtain a judgment of nullity of marriage for causes set forth in Sec. 2210 “must be commenced within the periods and by the parties,” and reasoned that “[t]he plain meaning of this language is that only a defrauded spouse may institute an action for annulment based on fraud.”

Third-Party Standing

The justice also declined to apply the general rule that a cause of action survives the plaintiff’s death since a third party is never accorded standing to seek annulment based on fraud under Sec. 2210.

“[H]ad the Legislature intended that an action for annulment could be commenced by a third party after the defrauded spouse’s death, it could have expressly provided for that contingency or eliminated the language in section 2211, subdivision (d) requiring that such a petition be commenced by the defrauded spouse,” he posited, opining that a delayed accrual of the cause of action for nullity based on fraud until after the death of the defrauded spouse would “eviscerate the standing provision of section 2211.”

Elizabeth Pryor’s public policy argument that individuals could evade the purpose of the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act by marrying their exploited wards was “more properly addressed to the Legislature than to the courts,” Epstein added.

In the probate matter, Elizabeth Pryor raised a similar claim, contending that care custodians who later marry their charges should not be allowed to invoke the spousal exception to Probate Code Sec. 21350’s presumptive disqualification of a care custodian from receiving a donative transfer from a dependent or elder adult. 

Although Epstein acknowledged “the possibility that unscrupulous care custodians might persuade a dependent adult to enter into marriage to avoid the presumption of section 21350,” he said the statutory spousal exception demonstrated the Legislature’s intent to allow donative transfers to a spouse. 

“We presume the Legislature meant what it said…by providing that the presumption of invalidity raised in section 21350 does not apply where the transferee is married to the transferor,” Epstein wrote.

The Legislature chose not to make any exception for situations where care custodians may have used undue influence to marry their dependent charges in a scheme to avoid the application of the presumption of invalidity, he said, “and it is the exclusive province of that body to do so.” 

Justices Nora M. Manella and Steven C. Suzukawa joined Epstein in the opinions.

Bruce S. Ross, Linda Rottman and Vivian L. Thoreen of Holland & Knight represented Elizabeth Pryor on both matters while Howard L. Horwitz and Eric G. Stockel of Kibre & Horwitz represented Jennifer Pryor.

The cases are Pryor v. Pryor, 09 S.O.S. 5819, and Estate of Pryor, 09 S.O.S. 5837.


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