California Couple’s Marriage License Did Not Automatically Wipe Out Terms of Domestic Partnership Agreement

A surviving spouse argued, to no avail, that his marriage to his registered domestic partner served as an automatic invalidation of the couple’s domestic partnership agreement regarding property and assets. In Konou v. Wilson, the California Court of Appeal ruled that the agreement served a similar function to a pre-nuptial agreement, and the couple’s marriage did nothing to void it.

In 1986, Philip Wilson created a will, leaving half his estate to his siblings, and the other half to Douglas Vanderburg, his registered domestic partner. The couple later terminated their partnership in 1993. In 2005, Wilson began a relationship with Antipas Konou. The couple signed a domestic partnership agreement in 2006. In the agreement, each partner disclaimed any present or future right to the assets, income or estate of the other. The couple registered as domestic partners in 2006, and married in San Francisco in the summer of 2008. Later that year, Wilson committed suicide.

In January 2009, Vanderburg disclaimed his rights under Wilson’s will. Konou sought to inherit from Wilson’s estate as an omitted spouse. Wilson’s siblings objected.

The trial court agreed that Konou qualified as a pretermitted spouse. Under Cal. Prob. Code 21610, “if a decedent fails to provide in a testamentary instrument for the decedent’s surviving spouse who married the decedent after the execution of all of the decedent’s testamentary instruments,” then that spouse is deemed legally pretermitted and, normally, entitled to a share of decedent’s estate as set out by the statute.

However, the existence of the domestic partnership agreement proved the undoing to Konou’s case. The agreement expressly disclaimed any right either partner had in the estate of the other. The court further concluded that Konou’s marriage to Wilson did not void the domestic partnership agreement, which constituted a valid waiver of his rights to Wilson’s estate.

Konou appealed, but the California Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court. Konou and Wilson, the court noted, never terminated their domestic partnership in accordance with Cal. Fam. Code 299, and never created a new property agreement after they married. The court also pointed out that Konou did not contest the validity of the domestic partnership agreement, but instead contended that his marriage license automatically voided the agreement and gave him certain property rights as Wilson’s spouse.

The court, however, concluded that the couple’s domestic partnership agreement functioned much like a pre-nuptial agreement. “A marriage license … does not modify or terminate any existing agreement regarding the division of property. The domestic partnership agreement serves the same function as a premarital agreement and, unless the express terms of the agreement provide otherwise, it remains in effect during a marriage,” the court wrote. While the status of marriage affords the spouses certain property rights, the law allows those couples to alter that arrangement through contractual agreements. That is what Konou and Wilson’s 2006 domestic partnership agreement did, and nothing occurred subsequently to change that, the court ruled.

If you have questions about spousal property agreements, or a surviving spouse’s rights to the estate of his/her deceased spouse, contact Ginzburg & Bronshteyn. Our hardworking Los Angeles family law attorneys are here to help clients in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura Counties, and throughout California, handle a multitude of probate and family law matters. To speak to our knowledgeable attorneys, please reach out to Ginzburg & Bronshteyn online or call us at (310) 914-3222.

Related blog posts:

Riverside County Case Emphasizes the Need to Revisit Your California Estate Plan Often, Los Angeles Probate Litigation Attorney Blog, July 30, 2012
A Surviving Omitted Spouse May Be Sued for Elder Financial Abuse in California, Los Angeles Probate Litigation Attorney Blog, June 28, 2012