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In re Estate of Pryor

September 29, 2009

ESTATE OF RICHARD PRYOR, DECEASED.
ELIZABETH PRYOR, PETITIONER AND APPELLANT,
v.
JENNIFER LEE PRYOR, OBJECTOR AND RESPONDENT.



APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Mitchell L. Beckloff, Judge. Affirmed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BP098205).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Epstein, P.J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

This appeal concerns the presumptive disqualification of a care custodian from receiving a donative transfer from a dependent or elder adult. (Prob. Code, § 21350.)*fn1

Appellant Elizabeth Pryor, daughter of the decedent, argues that her stepmother, respondent Jennifer Pryor, may not invoke the spousal exception to this presumption because the marriage was the product of undue influence and fraud. (§ 21351.) We find nothing in the statutory scheme or the legislative history which would warrant the judicial creation of an exception to the rule that a spouse may receive a donative transfer. We shall affirm the judgment.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL SUMMARY

Elizabeth is one of six children of Richard Pryor, the well-known comedian and actor.*fn2 Jennifer and Richard married in 1981 and divorced 1982. Richard was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1980's and his condition deteriorated thereafter. It is undisputed that Jennifer became a care custodian for Richard in 1994. In 2001, four and one-half years before Richard's death in 2005, Richard and Jennifer entered into a confidential marriage. Before and after this remarriage, Richard revised his estate plan to leave substantial assets to Jennifer rather than his six children. Apparently Elizabeth did not learn of the remarriage until after Richard's death.

In a companion appeal, Pryor v. Pryor (No. B207398), we affirmed the denial of Elizabeth's petition to annul the 2001 marriage between Jennifer and Richard on the ground of fraud. This case arises from a probate proceeding brought by Elizabeth. The first amended petition is the charging pleading. We are concerned here only with the fifth and sixth causes of action to set aside donative transfers under section 21350, because Elizabeth has confined her appeal to those claims. These causes of action seek to have various gifts, bequests, and transfers of property or assets made by Richard between 1994 and 2005 declared void under section 21350 because Jennifer's status as care custodian raises a presumption they are invalid.

Jennifer demurred to the first amended petition, invoking section 21351, subdivision (a) which allows a donative transfer by a dependent adult to a spouse. She argued that section 21351, subdivision (a) insulates any transfer to her by Richard from the presumption of invalidity raised by section 21350 regardless of the date of transfer. Elizabeth opposed the demurrer, challenging the validity of the remarriage, and arguing that transfers made by Richard before the remarriage come under section 21350. Her theory was that Jennifer's status as care custodian beginning in 1994 renders her ineligible to receive transfers under section 21350 and that the 2001 marriage does not ""cancel out' her care custodian status."

The court rejected Jennifer's expansive reading of section 21351, subdivision (a): "The court's read of the statute is not as expansive. The statute centers on a transferor and a transferee and whether they are related by marriage. The legislature's use of the transferor/transferee language suggests that the relevant inquiry is the nature of the parties' relationship at the time of the transfer." The court found support for this interpretation in section 21351, subdivisions (b) and (c) and concluded "There is nothing in the statute that suggests that a transfer might be subject to an after-the-fact exemption. In fact, subdivision (d) suggests that an otherwise prohibited transfer may be exempted later only upon a showing that the transfer was not the result of fraud, menace, duress, or undue influence."

Elizabeth's interpretation of section 21350 also was rejected. The trial court distinguished the cases on which she relied because none involved a formal legal relationship like marriage. In this case, the probate court concluded that the formally recognized marriage between Richard and Jennifer on June 8, 2001, created a bright line unlike the circumstances in the cases cited by Elizabeth. It ruled that this bright line "provides a division for transfers made before and after that time. [¶] Elizabeth's annulment action is pending. Absent success in that action, transfers to Jennifer from Richard occurring after June 8, 2001 are exempt from attack under Probate Code section 21350. Transfers occurring prior to June 8, 2001 are not."

The demurrer to the fifth and sixth causes of action was sustained to the extent that they alleged transfers to Jennifer after her remarriage to Richard. Elizabeth was given leave to amend at the conclusion of the annulment action and to amend the cause of action to allege only transfers occurring prior to the remarriage.

Elizabeth elected not to amend her petition. Jennifer applied for entry of an order of dismissal with prejudice, which Elizabeth opposed. The probate court granted Jennifer's application and dismissed the action. Elizabeth filed a timely appeal.

DISCUSSION

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