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Love and Death Collide in Michigan Annulment Litigation

Love and death are intimately related. A century ago, Sigmund Freud used the Greek words “eros and thanatos” to describe the complex relationship between them. More recently, in a much lighter vein, Woody Allen explored similar themes in a movie called “Love and Death.”

Given the powerful competition between the drive to live and the forces of death, it is scarcely surprising that death-bed marriages sometimes occur. It is a deeply human desire to want to finalize the status of a relationship as death draws near.

Yet a marriage that takes place in a hospital not long before one of the parties dies can raise troubling emotional and potentially legal issues for surviving family members. This is what happened in a recent Michigan case, Estate of Mullin v. Duenas.

Competence to Marry in Michigan

Ellen Mullin and Rene Duenas met in 1996 and began dating in 2000. They started cohabitating the following year. Although the couple split up for a couple of years over possible infidelity by Duenas, they got back together and bought a house to live in together in 2007.

In April 2008, however, Mullin was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. She had part of her tongue taken out, and later underwent chemotherapy after the cancer spread to her lymph nodes. On October 24, 2009, she was admitted to the hospital with stage-4 cancer.

Five days later, on October 29, Mullin and Duenas were married in a ceremony at the hospital. But not much more than a week later, on November 8, Mullin died.

After Mullin’s death, her two sisters sought to have the marriage set aside through a procedure called an annulment. An annulment differs from a divorce in that an annulment deems the marriage to have never legally taken place.

Mullin’s sisters claimed that she lacked the competence to enter into a marriage contract because of her struggle with cancer. The Michigan Court of Appeals found otherwise.

“[T]his was not a situation,” the court wrote in its opinion, “where Mullin met and married a man when she was gravely ill. Rather, Mullin knew the defendant, had a longstanding romantic relationship with him, and she cohabited with him before her terminal illness.”

Moreover, the court noted that on October 30, the day after the wedding, one of the sisters arranged to have an attorney come to Ellen Mullin’s room to have her execute a durable power of attorney designating her mother as her patient advocate.

Grounds for Annulment

The other main argument made by Mullin’s sisters was that Duenas used fraud to induce Mullin to enter into the marriage.

The court rejected this argument as well. Under Michigan law, the court held, “[an] action to annul a marriage on the ground of fraud can only be brought by the defrauded spouse while both parties are living.”

This meant that Mullin’s sisters lacked legal standing to challenge her marriage on the ground of alleged fraud.

The only circumstance in which a third party can seek to annul a marriage in Michigan is when one of the parties to the marriage lacks the capacity to enter into a marriage contract.

That was not the case with Ellen Mullin. Though she was in the hospital, she knew what she was doing. With death drawing near, she wanted to marry her long-time romantic partner. It was a way, perhaps, of still reaching for love and life despite disease and death closing in on her.