December 15, 2017

An Interesting Application Of Laches; Riggs v. Hill

Category: Indiana Law Review | Author: | Share:

When I think of laches, I think of situations involving times when a party was required to act, but neglects to do so. But this case shows that I thought of this doctrine too narrowly, and that you may be able to claim it any time you can argue that a reasonable person would have taken any kind of action in a more timely manner.

Milana and Leon Riggs were married in 1968. The next year, Milana went to Mexico to have a Mexican court issue a document which purported to dissolve the marriage. They lived together for only one year, had no children and after 1969 never again lived together. From 1970 until 2015, Leon filed his taxes as a single individual. But there were questions about the validity of the divorce.

In 1973, Milana and Leon filed cross-petitions to dissolve the marriage; neither petition was resolved. In 1977, Leon filed a declaratory judgment action seeking a declaration as to the validity of the Mexican dissolution document. This is also unresolved. And in 2015, Milana again filed a petition to dissolve the marriage. But by the time this petition was filed, Leon suffered from dementia. Before this could be resolved, Leon died.

Milana turned lemons into lemonade and elected to take her spousal share of Leon’s estate against his will. The estate moved for summary judgment, arguing that Milana’s attempt to claim spousal rights was barred by the doctrine of laches. The trial court agreed, and Milana appealed.

On appeal, the Court noted that laches applies when someone neglects “to do what in law should be done” for an unreasonable length of time. The doctrine requires (1) an inexcusable delay, (2) an implied waiver, and (3) prejudice. And the Court found that the doctrine applied here because Milana should have resolved the legal status of her marriage before Leon’s death.

Milana seeks to claim a share of Leon’s estate as his surviving spouse. But she has known for over four decades that the legal status of their marriage was, at the least, unresolved. Had she wanted to assert a claim that she has legal rights as Leon’s spouse (and is also saddled with the concomitant legal responsibilities), she should have done so years, if not decades, ago.

Therefore, Milana’s failure to resolve the status of the Mexican proceeding prevented her from claiming spousal rights to Leon’s estate.

It is unclear why the Court did not place any of the onus for resolving the status of the parties’ marriage on Leon. It could have said that Leon knew of the unresolved nature of the marriage, and that he should have clarified that issue if he have wanted to prevent Milana from taking her spousal share. And this lack of clarity should be a warning to us and our clients—Don’t let your clients sit on their rights, or they may lose them through inaction.

Lessons:

  1. 46 years constitutes inexcusable delay and is sufficient to support a laches defense.
  2. The Dead Man’s Statute is alive and well and prohibits the testimony of an alleged surviving spouse about her relationship with the decedent where she is seeking to inherit a portion of the decedent’s estate.