Under the law in Maryland (and most other states), a surviving spouse in lieu of any assets left to them in the decedent’s will may elect to take a “statutory share” of their late spouse’s estate, which in the case of surviving children of the deceased is one-third of the net estate. Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a novel opinion last month addressed whether a surviving spouse who exerted undue influence over the decedent may be barred from receiving that elective share, in an opinion called In the Matter of Watkins.
The appeal was from the branch of the Circuit Court called the Orphan’s Court which handles estates. The opinion indicates that the Orphan’s Court held a hearing on allegations that the surviving wife of less than two years should not be entitled to a share of her late husband’s estate. Testimony from fact and expert witnesses showed that the wife met Mr. Watkins shortly before the death of his wife of many years, and shortly thereafter, they became inseparable. Evidence was presented about their relationship, ultimately leading the trial court to conclude that the decedent was “physically and emotionally dominated” by the new wife to get him to marry her.
The trial court then applied a Florida law in holding that a spouse who exerted undue influence for financial gain could not take a share of the estate. The appellate Court agreed that Mr. Watkins remained domiciled in Maryland at the time of death so the Florida law was inapplicable, and then considered whether to apply Maryland’s rule of “unclean hands.” That rule provides that a court can deny relief “to those guilty of unlawful or inequitable conduct” related to the transaction under which relief was sought.
The Court of Special Appeals said “what matters is not that the (party’s) hands are dirty, but that he dirties them in acquiring the right he now asserts.” Here, the Court held, it was clear that the widow seeking a statutory share had exerted undue influence on her late husband to get him to marry her for her financial gain. Although no Maryland case had applied the unclean hands doctrine in such a case, the Court found that the widow’s conduct was such that she was barred from obtaining a statutory share of the estate.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.