J. Kelly Kennedy, Attorney/CPA, PLLC

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Florida inheritances and "death-bed marriages"

The financial exploitation of the elderly is on the rise in Florida and the rest of the country. This kind of activity can come in many forms, some blatantly illegal and some just morally questionable. Some of the most difficult cases involve unscrupulous individuals who ingratiate themselves into the lives of lonely and vulnerable older people in order to get their hands on the person's money after they pass away. Sometimes, these scam artists even marry the older person in an effort to get at their money. And in some cases, the older person's family members do not even know about the exploitation until after the person has died and left behind a will that leaves all assets to the scam artist at the expense of relatives, charities and long-time friends.

It is always a difficult question of how to challenge one of these suspicious-looking wills. Any interested party may challenge a will, but without evidence that it was created under coercion of some kind, it may be difficult to get a Florida court to throw out an otherwise valid will.

In cases involving a suspected scam artist who actually married the older person, things get even more complicated. Under Florida law, the surviving spouse has a number of property rights to the deceased spouse's estate, even if the will did not leave anything to the spouse. Thus, even if family members may be able to have the deceased's will ruled invalid, the surviving spouse may be able to claim nearly a third of the deceased's estate, and continue to live in the deceased's home.

For these cases, there is another possibility, interested parties may challenge the validity of the marriage itself. Before 2010, it was nearly impossible to have a marriage ruled invalid after one of the spouses had died, even if the marriage was performed at one person's death bed. However, in 2010 the Florida Legislature expanded the right to challenge a marriage after one of the spouses has died. Interested parties may now issue a challenge to the validity of one of these marriages in a number of ways in just about any legal proceeding that involves one of the spouses or their estate.

These are difficult cases, both emotionally and technically. They touch on troubling issues of personal autonomy and family life. However, they can be necessary at times to prevent an injustice and to ensure that family members' inheritance interests are honored. Florida residents who suspect that their loved ones were financially exploited should get help understanding their legal rights and options.

Source: Wealth Management, "'I Do - And Yes, He Does, Too'," John T. Brooks and Jena L. Levin, Aug. 27, 2013

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