How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Days: Deathbed Marriages in America

28 Pages Posted: 29 Jan 2008


Should you be able to marry someone who has only days to live? If so, should the government award the surviving spouse the many property rights that ordinarily flow from marriage?

In almost every state, the only person allowed to challenge the validity of a marriage (or, by extension, the property consequences thereof) after the death of one of the spouses is the surviving spouse! Seems incredible, does it not? The expectant heirs of a dying man (or woman) who marries on his (or her) deathbed cannot challenge the marriage post-death. Ironically, the one person allowed to challenge is the only person who has absolutely no motivation to do so.

How did this rule come about? What, if anything, should we do to change it? This article explores these and other related questions, including a proposed theoretical framework for a model act giving heirs and beneficiaries standing to sue in order to negate the property consequences that flow from marriage, depending on the level of mental capacity at the time of the marriage.

Individuals on their deathbeds have just as much right to marry as anyone, and if competent and under no duress, the parties to the marriage certainly should have protection under the law. Protection should be appropriately shaped to avoid harassment of widows and widowers.

However, I simply cannot see a valid argument for denying a decedent-spouse's heirs (those who would take the decedent's property if he or she died unmarried and intestate) and beneficiaries (those who would take under the decedent's valid will, if any, absent a spousal election) the right to challenge the property consequences of a suspect marriage, especially when that challenge is based on traditional grounds that might naturally flow from a deathbed marriage.

Ironically, a decedent on their deathbed may not have the legal capacity to enter into a contract but can get married. It is only reasonable that these poor people and their heirs and beneficiaries should have state protection against a surviving spouse taking some or all of the decedent's property. Protection of heirs and beneficiaries is necessary where a surviving spouse may have few legitimate motives for entering into a deathbed marriage, particularly in light of the surviving spouse's ability to take some or all of the decedent's property.

The current incentives are off kilter. A greedy potential spouse has every incentive to find a minister or officer of the law willing to marry them off to a wealthy sick person and no legal incentives not to try it. No matter how ugly the situation, a marriage becomes set in stone with no person other than the surviving spouse allowed standing to seek redress in a court of law upon the death of one of the spouses. Allowing, in an appropriate way, heirs and beneficiaries to challenge the property consequences of a suspect marriage puts in place the proper disincentives before attempting to take advantage of one of feeble mind and spirit.

If these property consequences are allowed to stand, victims will continue to abound in deathbed marriage situations where consent is lacking: the decedent, her family, and society generally. Just imagine how you would feel losing an expectancy in such circumstances.

Keywords: marriage, death, deathbed, capacity

JEL Classification: K11

Suggested Citation

Turnipseed, Terry L., How Do I Love Thee, Let Me Count the Days: Deathbed Marriages in America. Kentucky Law Journal, Vol. 96, No. 275, 2008, Available at SSRN:

Terry L. Turnipseed (Contact Author)

Syracuse University College of Law ( email )

Syracuse, NY 13244-1030
United States

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