A woman found to have manipulated a grieving, ailing and wealthy widower into marriage was rightfully denied a statutory share of his estate when he died, Maryland’s second-highest court ruled Wednesday.
Emeline Wilson Watkins’ manipulation of Robert F. Watkins Jr. — as evidenced in small part by her daily withdrawals from his bank account as he lay dying in a hospital – shows she entered the marriage with “unclean hands” and is thus not entitled to the surviving spouse’s statutory share of one-third of the estate, the Court of Special Appeals held.
The court stated in its reported 3-0 decision that it could find no Maryland case applying the “unclean hands” doctrine to a marriage but cited a New York ruling that stripped a wife of a share of her late husband’s estate because she had “procured (the) marriage … through overreaching and undue influence.”
Timothy F. Maloney, the attorney for Robert’s children, hailed the decision.
“This is an issue of first impression, where the court decided that procuring a marriage with undue influence will bar that spouse from receiving an elective share of the deceased spouse’s estate,” Maloney stated in an email Thursday.
“The court relied upon the common law doctrine of unclean hands, which has frequently been applied to testamentary cases, where undue influence was exercised over the testator,” Maloney added, referring to last wills and testaments. “But this is the first reported instance of that principle being applied to marriages that were procured by undue influence.”
Maloney is with Joseph, Greenwald & Laake P.A. in Greenbelt.
Emeline’s attorney, Ralph W. Powers Jr., did not return a telephone message Thursday, seeking comments on the decision and any plans to seek review by the Court of Appeals. Powers is with Ralph W. Powers Jr. P.C. in Upper Marlboro.
The testimony of Robert’s family and friends during probate proceedings in the Orphans’ Court for Prince George’s County revealed a marriage based more on greed than love.
Robert was described as a real estate and racehorse owner who was raised by an affluent family and never worked. Emeline, 24 years his junior, worked at the cosmetics counter at Bloomingdale’s in Chevy Chase, making $45,000 annually.
Robert was shopping for makeup at that Bloomingdale’s in early 2012 with his terminally ill wife, Jasmine, when they were waited on by Emeline. Soon after, Robert and Emeline met for lunch at a restaurant – at his invitation, according to Emeline.
Jasmine died of bladder cancer on March 17, 2012, leaving Robert absolutely devastated and not caring whether he lived or died, according to testimony of his longtime friend and of his daughter Shannon. Robert was often confused, forgetting to shut the door to his house and the location of where he’d parked his car.
During this time, Robert was spending most of his time with Emeline, who quit her job at Bloomingdale’s.
Shannon soon discovered three cashier’s checks totaling $36,000 that Robert had drawn on the joint account father and daughter shared.
While returning the checks to the bank for a refund in August 2012, Shannon saw Emeline sitting in a car in the parking lot and observed her father walking out of the bank with a fourth cashier’s check totaling $40,000.
Shannon demanded the check from her father and returned it to the bank for a refund.
Robert told Shannon the money he had withdrawn was for the down payment on a house Emeline wanted in Palm Beach, Florida.
A few weeks later, Robert and Emeline went to West Virginia to get married. When Robert changed his mind, Emeline jumped on his chest, beat him and scratched him, Shannon testified in recounting what her father had told her. Emeline testified that she did not jump on him.
Robert and Emeline, however, did marry just weeks later, on Sept. 24, 2012, in Broward County, Florida. No family or friends were at the wedding and Shannon said her father did not tell her of the marriage for more than a month.
The newlyweds moved to Florida, and Shannon’s husband, Jeffrey Komins, dropped by in December 2012 for a visit. When Komins told Emeline who he was, she asked him to wait a minute but never opened the door, though he waited for nearly a half hour.
When Robert visited Maryland in August 2013, he was driving a brand-new Audi with a financed purchase price of $104,998. About two weeks later, he traded in the Audi for a 2013 Mercedes-Benz with a financed purchase price of $197,874.
The cars were titled in his name, but he quit driving shortly after the Mercedes purchase, leaving Emeline as the sole driver. She testified that the car purchases were Robert’s idea.
In early 2014, Jeffrey Komins again visited the Florida home, but this time he came with police. Emeline answered and Robert came to the door wearing only boxer shorts.
Komins testified that Robert told him that Emeline was a “relentless pit bull” who threw his cellphone away and had the house phone disconnected.
After Robert was hospitalized in late August 2014, Emeline made daily withdrawals of $700 – the maximum amount permitted by the bank.
Robert died on Aug. 30, 2014, at age 82.
The orphans’ court concluded that Emeline “physically and emotionally dominated” Robert and induced him to marry her. The court applied Florida law, based on where the couple lived, in concluding that Emeline’s conduct deprived her of a share of Robert’s estate.
On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals said Maryland law applies because Robert, though living in Florida, had maintained more substantial ties to Maryland.
Though applying Maryland law, the appeals court agreed that Emeline had no right to Robert’s estate under the legal doctrine of “unclean hands.”
“The orphans’ court found that Emeline exercised undue influence over the decedent (Robert) to cause him to marry her for her financial gain,” Judge James R. Eyler wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.
“Had Emeline engaged in the same conduct to cause the decedent to change his will to her advantage, the will could have been set aside on that basis,” added Eyler, a retired judge sitting by special assignment. “We are persuaded … that Emeline’s inequitable conduct in achieving her status as a surviving spouse bars her from making a claim before the orphans’ court for a statutory share of the estate.”
Eyler was joined in the opinion by Judges Stuart R. Berger and Andrea M. Leahy.
The Court of Special Appeals rendered its decision in In the Matter of Robert H. Watkins Jr., No. 2171, September Term 2017.