Illinois Supreme Court: Marriage to Ward Void Without Guardian Consent and Best Interest Determination

In In re Estate of McDonald, an April 21, 2022 opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court held that a ward who wishes to enter into a marriage may do so only with the consent of his guardian, and only after the court finds that the marriage is in the ward’s best interest.

The Facts of In re Estate of MacDonald

On December 15, 2017, Shawn McDonald filed a petition in the circuit court of Kane County, Illinois, seeking letters of administration for the estate of his deceased brother, John W. McDonald III, who died intestate on December 11, 2017,

Shawn alleged that John’s only heirs were his parents, John W. McDonald Jr. and Brenda K. McDonald, and his three siblings.

Shawn further averred that on May 30, 2017, he had been appointed plenary guardian over John’s person and estate by the circuit court of Kane County, Illinois,  and that thereafter, on July 11, 2017, without the prior knowledge or consent of his guardian or the court, John participated in a purported wedding ceremony with a person who identified herself as Ellizzette Duvall Minnicelli.

Shawn alleged that John’s marriage was without legal effect and void ab initio because John, as a ward, lacked the legal capacity to consent to the marriage without a judicial finding that the marriage was in John’s best interest.

On December 19, 2017, the circuit court entered orders appointing Shawn administrator and declaring John’s heirs to be his parents and his siblings.

On December 22, 2017, Shawn filed a petition for declaration of invalidity of marriage pursuant to section 301(1) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (Marriage Act).  In support of his petitions, Shawn presented substantial evidence (detailed at length in the opinion) as to John’s incapacity and the issues that led to John’s guardianship.

Ellizzette filed a motion to vacate the court’s orders appointing Shawn administrator of John’s estate and declaring heirship. Ellizzette asserted that she was John’s surviving spouse and, as such, his sole heir. Ellizzette further asserted that Shawn, having been aware that she was John’s surviving spouse, had obtained letters of administration under false pretenses. Ellizzette also maintained some jurisdictional arguments.

Ultimately, the Illinois court determined that Ellizzette failed to present a prima facie case establishing the validity of her marriage to John.  Ellizzette appealed, and Illinois appellate court determined that a new trial was necessary because the circuit court erred when it barred Ellizzette from testifying based on the Dead Man’s Act. 735 ILCS 5/8-201 (West 2016).

Shawn filed a petition for leave to appeal in the Illinois Supreme Court.

Can a Ward Under a Guardianship Get Married Under Illinois Law?

Under Illinois law,  a ward who wishes to enter into a marriage may do so only with the consent of his guardian, and only after the court finds that the marriage is in the ward’s best interest.

Guardian Consent + Best Interest Determination By Court = Ward’s Marriage Authorized

The Illinois Probate Act, Article XIa-17(a-10) governs the duties of a personal guardian under Illinois law and states:

(a-10) Upon petition by the guardian of the ward’s person or estate, the court may authorize and direct a guardian of the ward’s person or estate to consent, on behalf of the ward, to the ward’s marriage pursuant to Part II of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act if the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the marriage is in the ward’s best interests. In making its determination, the court shall consider the standards set forth in subsection (e) of this Section. Upon presentation of a court order authorizing and directing a guardian of the ward’s person and estate to consent to the ward’s marriage, the county clerk shall accept the guardian’s application, appearance, and signature on behalf of the ward for purposes of issuing a license to marry under Section 203 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act.

Reading this provision in context with the guardianship code, the Illinois Supreme Court determined that under the Probate Act, a ward who wishes to enter into a marriage may do so only with the consent of his guardian and that:

Pursuant to section 11a-17(a-10) (id. § 11a-17(a-10)), for a guardian to obtain the ability to consent, he must file a petition with the court. If the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that the marriage is in the ward’s best interest, the court may then authorize and direct the guardian to consent to the ward’s marriage. When making its best interest determination, the court must follow the standards set forth in subsection (e), which means that the court must rule in conformity with the ward’s preferences unless the court believes that the marriage would result in substantial harm to the ward’s welfare or personal or financial interests.

Here, it was Ellizzette’s burden to prove her status as heir by proving that she and John entered into a valid marriage. The validity of the marriage was challenged by Shawn, as administrator of John’s estate, based on the contention that John was a ward under the plenary guardianship of Shawn and, as such, John lacked the capacity to enter into a valid marriage without the authorization and consent of his guardian granted by the court after a finding that the marriage was in John’s best interest.  The Illinois Supreme Court agreed, finding that for John to have the legal capacity to enter into a valid marriage, he had to obtain the consent of his guardian, Shawn, given upon the authorization and direction of the court after a best interest determination. Thus, for Ellizzette to meet her burden of proving a valid marriage to John, she would have to show that, prior to the marriage, the court authorized and directed Shawn to consent to the marriage upon a finding that the marriage was in John’s best interest.  That did not happen.

Why Doesn’t the Illinois Marriage Act Govern a Ward’s Marriage?

Ellizzette urged (and the dissenting opinion agreed) that the Illinois Marriage Act governed the validity of her marriage to the Ward.  Section 301 of the Illinois Marriage Act provides that:

The court shall enter its judgment declaring the invalidity of a marriage (formerly known as annulment) entered into under the following circumstances:

(1) a party lacked capacity to consent to the marriage at the time the marriage was solemnized, either because of mental incapacity or infirmity or because of the influence of alcohol, drugs or other incapacitating substances, or a party was induced to enter into a marriage by force or duress or by fraud involving the essentials of marriage[.]

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected the argument that to prove the validity of the marriage to the ward it was only necessary to show that John understood the nature, effect, duties, and obligations of the marriage contract into which he entered, stating:

In the case at bar, Ellizzette brought suit, seeking to be named the sole heir of John’s estate as John’s surviving spouse. Therefore, it was Ellizzette’s burden to prove her status as heir by proving that she and John entered into a valid marriage. The validity of the marriage was challenged by Shawn, as administrator of John’s estate, based on the contention that John was a ward under the plenary guardianship of Shawn and, as such, John lacked the capacity to enter into a valid marriage without the authorization and consent of his guardian granted by the court after a finding that the marriage was in John’s best interest. We agree.

The Illinois Supreme Court further held that Ellizzette was not prejudiced by the trial court prohibiting her testimony, stating:

Ellizzette was aware at the time the marriage took place that, as a result of guardianship proceedings, John was under the plenary guardianship of Shawn and, for that reason, the marriage might not be valid. It is also clear from the record that no best interest finding was ever sought or made. In light of our holding in this opinion that a disabled person lacks the capacity to marry unless a court authorizes and directs that person’s guardian to consent to the marriage after a best interest finding, Ellizzette could not have provided any testimony that would have been sufficient to prove the validity of the marriage. Consequently, Ellizzette could not have been prejudiced by her inability to testify regarding the marriage.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the appellate court, determining that a new trial was unnecessary, and that the trial court was correct in determining that the marriage to the ward was invalid.

Dissenting Opinion – The Illinois Marriage Act Should Apply To Determine the Validity Of The Marriage With the Ward

A dissenting opinion expressed shock at the majority’s determination that the Illinois Marriage Act did not apply to determine the validity of the marriage, warning of the consequences of such a determination, stating:

The majority extraordinarily holds that the Marriage Act does not govern in a case centered on whether a couple was legally married in Illinois. See supra ¶ 76. The majority ignores the obvious; the Marriage Act specifically addresses the requirements and formalities that a couple must fulfill to be legally married in Illinois. See 750 ILCS 5/101 et seq. (West 2016). None of those requirements reference section 11a-17(a-10) of the Probate Act or suggest that a ward must have the consent of his or her guardian after a court hearing on best interest to enter into a valid marriage in Illinois.

The Marriage Act unambiguously requires that any challenge by a guardian to his or her ward’s competency to consent to marriage because of mental incapacity or infirmity occur no later than 90 days after the guardian obtained knowledge and “in no event” after the ward’s death. By reading language into section 11a-17(a-10) of the Probate Act and in complete contravention of the Marriage Act, the majority is allowing a marriage to be declared invalid after the death of a party to the marriage; the majority is doing indirectly what the Marriage Act clearly prohibits. See Accettura v. Vacationland, Inc., 2019 IL 124285, ¶ 11 (a court may not alter the plain meaning of a statute’s language by reading into it exceptions, limitations, or conditions not expressed by the legislature).

The majority’s erroneous ruling renders void any marriage in Illinois that has been entered into since August 26, 2014, by a ward with a plenary guardian who did not first receive a court order authorizing and directing the guardian to consent to the ward’s marriage. See Pub. Act 98-1107, § 5 (eff. Aug. 26, 2014) (adding 755 ILCS 5/11a-17(a-10)). The majority fails to acknowledge the very serious impact of this holding on such couples, including those who may have had a child following what they had every reason to believe was a valid marriage in Illinois.

 

Read more about Illinois probate and guardianship issues here.

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