Election against ex-husband’s will barred due to unresolved marriage status


Olivia Covington for ww.theindianalawyer.com

The purported ex-wife of a now-deceased man cannot proceed with her election against the man’s will because the couple failed to resolve the issue of the legal status of their marriage for more than 40 years, thus barring her claim under the doctrine of laches, the Indiana Court of Appeals has ruled.

One year after their marriage in April 1968, Leon and Milana Riggs separated and were issued a divorce decree in Mexico. The couple stopped living together in 1969, and beginning in 1970, Leon Riggs’ tax filing status was single.

Then in 1973, Milana Riggs filed an Indiana petition to dissolve the marriage, while her purported ex-husband filed a cross-claim seeking the same relief and declaratory judgment as to the validity of the Mexican divorce decree. However, none of those actions were ever resolved, leaving the question regarding the validity of the Mexican decree unresolved.

Milana Riggs then filed a second petition to dissolve the marriage in 2015, but by that point Leon Riggs suffered from dementia and was not competent to participate in the action. He died before the dissolution decree was entered, so the Marion Superior Court dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

Shortly after Leon Riggs’ death, his ex-wife filed an election to take against his will, claiming she was married to him at the time of his death, renouncing all provisions in his will and electing to take her legal share in the estate. She also filed claims against the estate for compensation.

But Cynthia Hill, Leon’s daughter who had been appointed personal representative of her father’s estate, filed a motion to strike Milana Riggs’ election against the will, which the probate court treated as a motion for summary judgment under the equitable doctrines of laches, unclean hands and equitable estoppel. Hill also moved to strike Milana Riggs’ affidavit and deposition, which the ex-wife had designated in opposition to summary judgment, pursuant to the Indiana Dead Man’s Statute.

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Milana Riggs then filed a cross-motion for summary judgment in which she claimed, among other things, that Hill was estopped from arguing the Mexican divorce decree was valid. But in granting Hill’s motions and denying Milana Riggs’ motions, the probate court concluded its role was not to determine the validity of the Mexican decree, but rather whether the parties were barred from seeking or contesting the spousal election. The court then determined Milana Riggs’ claims was barred by the doctrine of laches.

Milana Riggs appealed in Milana Staletovich Riggs v. Cynthia Hill, in her capacity as the Personal Representative of the Estate of Leon O. Riggs, 49A02-1703-EU0458, arguing first that the probate court erred in granting Hill’s motion to strike Milana Riggs’ affidavit and deposition.  But Indiana Court of Appeals Judge John Baker, writing in a Tuesday opinion, disagreed, pointing to the decision in In Re Sutherland’s Estate, 204 N.E.2d 520 (Ind. 1965).

In that case, the Supreme Court determined the “Dead Man’s Statute prohibits the testimony of an alleged surviving spouse about her relationship with the decedent where she is seeking to inherit a portion of the decedent’s estate.” Because the Supreme Court still considers Sutherland to be good law, it was not erroneous for the probate court to grant the motion to strike under that statute, Baker wrote.

The appellate court also affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Hill, with Baker writing that “(46) years is an inexcusable delay for Milana to assert her rights as Leon’s legal spouse” and that Milana Riggs had acquiesced to the legally unsettled nature of her relationship with her deceased husband. Thus, the doctrine of laches applies, the judges held.

Finally, the appellate court declined to apply judicial estoppel against the estate’s argument that Leon Milana Riggs was not married at the time of his death, because no such argument was made. Rather, Hill consistently maintained the validity of the Mexican document was not relevant to the case, Baker wrote.