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Pryor v. Pryor

September 29, 2009


APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Mitchell L. Beckloff, Judge. Affirmed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BD469284).

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


Elizabeth Pryor appeals from an order dismissing her petition to annul the marriage of her late father, Richard Pryor, and respondent Jennifer Lee Pryor.*fn1 We conclude that Elizabeth lacks standing to petition to annul the marriage and affirm.


Richard was a well-known comedian and actor. He had six children, including Elizabeth. Richard was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the mid-1980‟s. He was married to Jennifer in 1981 and they divorced in 1982. On June 8, 2001, pursuant to a confidential marriage license, Richard and Jennifer remarried. Richard died on December 10, 2005. At some point after his death, Elizabeth discovered his 2001 remarriage to Jennifer.

On July 13, 2007, styling herself as successor in interest to Richard, Elizabeth petitioned to annul Richard‟s 2001 marriage to Jennifer on the ground of fraud.*fn2 Jennifer responded with a motion to quash the petition on the grounds that Elizabeth lacked standing and that the petition was time barred under Family Code section 2211, subdivision (d).*fn3 Elizabeth then filed an amended petition for annulment pursuant to section 2210, subdivision (d) (fraud), adding the allegation that the confidential marriage license was void. Jennifer moved to strike the allegation that the marriage should be annulled because the confidential marriage license was void (§§ 300, 350). She also renewed her effort to quash the proceeding on the ground that Elizabeth lacked standing and that the petition is time barred under section 2211, subdivision (d) and California Rules of Court, rule 5.121 (a)(1) and (a)(4).

The trial court granted Jennifer‟s motion. The court considered Greene v. Williams (1970) 9 Cal.App.3d 559 (Greene) and In re Marriage of Goldberg (1994) 22 Cal.App.4th 265 (Goldberg) and harmonized their holdings. It concluded that Greene "stands for the proposition that a nullity action alleging a voidable marriage does not survive the death of a spouse. Goldberg, on the other hand, allows a nullity action alleging a voidable marriage to proceed where a spouse initiates the action and then dies prior to its conclusion." The court rejected Elizabeth‟s argument that section 2211 "evidences a legislative intent that a nullity action based on fraud survives the death of the defrauded spouse."

The court entered an order of dismissal with prejudice and this timely appeal followed.


Elizabeth contends de novo review is appropriate, arguing that a motion to quash in family law is analogous to a demurrer. The standard of review on a question of annulment is substantial evidence (In re Marriage of Ramirez (2008) 165 Cal.App.4th 751, 756), while questions of statutory interpretation are subject to de novo review. (Elsenheimer v. Elsenheimer (2004) 124 Cal.App.4th 1532, 1536.)

Reversal is compelled, Elizabeth argues, by section 2211, "interpretive case law," survivability of a cause of action for fraud, and Code of Civil Procedure section 338, the three-year statute of limitations for actions based on fraud. She also contends that public policy compels reversal, arguing that caregivers should not be able to exploit their wards‟ dependence for their own benefit. According to Elizabeth, the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (Elder Abuse Act or Act) (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15600 et seq.)*fn4 is designed to prevent such exploitation, and an affirmance here would allow Jennifer to evade the policies underlying that Act by marrying Richard.

A. Annulment Statutes

We begin our analysis with the statutory framework. "Our fundamental task in construing a statute is to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers so as to effectuate the purpose of the statute. [Citation.] We begin by examining the statutory language, giving the words their usual and ordinary meaning. [Citation.] If there is no ambiguity, then we presume the lawmakers meant what they said, and the plain meaning of the language governs. [Citations.] If, however, the statutory terms are ambiguous, then we may resort to extrinsic sources, including the ostensible objects to be achieved and the legislative history. (People v. Coronado [(1995)] 12 Cal.4th [145,] 151.) In such circumstances, we ""select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the Legislature, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the general purpose of the statute, and avoid an interpretation that would lead to absurd consequences." [Citation.]‟ ([Citation]; see Escobedo v. Estate of Snider (1997) 14 Cal.4th 1214, 1223.)" (Day v. City of Fontana (2001) 25 Cal.4th 268, 272, italics added.) We must construe the language of a statute ""in the context of the statute as a whole and the overall statutory scheme, and we give "significance to every word, phrase, sentence, and part of an act in pursuance of the legislative purpose."‟" (Smith v. Superior Court (2006) 39 Cal.4th 77, 83, quoting People v. Canty (2004) 32 Cal.4th 1266, 1276.)

"It is well settled in California that "the Legislature has full control of the subject of marriage and may fix the conditions under which the marital status may be created or terminated....‟" (Lockyer v. City and County of San Francisco (2004) 33 Cal.4th 1055, 1074, quoting McClure v. Donovan (1949) 33 Cal.2d 717, 728.) The Supreme Court in McClure explained: "With the right of action for annulment of a marriage so statutory in nature, it is for the Legislature to prescribe when and by whom such litigation may be commenced...." (McClure v. Donovan, at p. 728, italics added; see also Estate of Gregorson (1911) 160 Cal. 21 (Gregorson).)

We first dispose of Elizabeth‟s claim that the marriage of Jennifer and Richard was void rather than voidable, and therefore subject to collateral attack. Her theory is that the confidential marriage license was forged and therefore rendered the marriage illegal. Estate of DePasse (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 92 on which Elizabeth relies, is distinguishable. In that case, a couple who had lived together were married without a marriage license because of the alleged wife‟s illness and imminent death. In a probate action involving the alleged husband‟s claim to half his wife‟s estate, the Court of Appeal held that the issuance of a marriage license is mandatory for a valid marriage in California. (Id. at pp. 95, 102-103.)

Here, Elizabeth acknowledges a marriage license was issued, but claims Richard‟s signature was forged. This brings her action within the fraud provisions of section 2210, which we next discuss. Section 2200 provides that incestuous marriages are void, and section 2201 provides that bigamous and polygamous marriages are either void or voidable "depending on the circumstances." (Estate of DePasse, supra, 97 Cal.App.4th at pp. 105-106.) In contrast, fraud is a ground which may render a marriage voidable under section 2210. (Id. at p. 106; see also Gregorson, supra, 160 Cal. at p. 26 [contrasting validity under predecessor of section 2210 with "[a] marriage prohibited as incestuous or illegal and declared to be "void‟ or "void from the beginning‟" as a legal nullity whose validity may be asserted in any proceeding in which the fact of marriage may be material].)

Section 2210 provides that marriages are voidable and may be adjudged a nullity if specified conditions existed at the time of the marriage. These include: (1) where one or both parties were minors and did not have the consent of a parent to marry (§ 2210, subd. (a)); (2) bigamy (§ 2210, subd. (b)); (3) where one party is of unsound mind (§ 2210, subd. (c)); (4) where the consent of either party was obtained by fraud (§ 2210, subd. (d)); (5) or by force (§ 2210, subd. (e)); and (6) where either party was physically incapable of entering into the marriage, and the incapacity appears incurable (§ 2210, subd. (f)).

Section 2211 is the companion to section 2210. The introductory sentence of that statute provides: "A proceeding to obtain a judgment of nullity of marriage, for causes set forth in Section 2210, must be commenced within the periods and by the parties, as follows:..." (§ 2211, italics added.) This passage plainly and unambiguously defines not only the limitations periods for nullity actions based on various grounds, but standing as well. We disagree with Elizabeth‟s strained reading of this passage, to the ...

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