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Wife waited too long to accuse husband of bigamy, Md. court says

Wife waited too long to accuse husband of bigamy, Md. court says

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Bessie Jean Peete’s annulment suit “was admittedly motivated only to gain financial rights, not to vindicate the status of the marriage,” wrote Maryland Appellate Court Judge E. Gregory Wells. (The Daily Record/File Photo)

A woman who succeeded in having her divorce overturned four years after her ex-husband’s death has failed in her bid to have his final marriage posthumously annulled based on bigamy, thus thwarting her bid for a share of his pension earmarked for his widow.

Maryland’s second-highest court ruled this month that Bessie Jean Peete had legal standing as Author Peete’s wife – after their divorce was overturned – to seek the annulment of his subsequent marriage because a man, or woman, cannot be married to two people at the same time.

But the Appellate Court took umbrage with both the 13 years Bessie waited after Author’s death to seek the annulment and her financial motive. The court denied Bessie’s bid to annul Author’s marriage to Maryland Peete, citing the “laches” doctrine, under which judges may dismiss a complaint if they believe the litigant has waited too long to bring it.

“We conclude that the unusual set of facts before us necessitates the application of laches,” Chief Judge E. Gregory Wells wrote in the Appellate Court’s reported opinion. “This is particularly so where Bessie’s annulment suit was admittedly motivated only to gain financial rights, not to vindicate the status of the marriage.”

Bessie’s “13-year delay in asserting her marital rights was unreasonable and unfairly prejudices Maryland (and Author),” Wells added in the court’s 3-0 decision.

The facts’ early years were not unusual, with Bessie and Author marrying in 1971 and separating in 1975.

In 1991, Author filed for divorce, which was granted by default judgment after Bessie neither filed an answer nor appeared in court.

Several months later, in June 1992, Author married Maryland, who shares a name with the state where they wed. Author died in September 2007.

The facts became unusual in November 2011 when Bessie moved to vacate the divorce in District of Columbia Circuit Court, saying she did not receive notice of Author’s 1991 filing. The court granted Bessie’s motion in July 2013, finding that notice was served not on her but improperly on a 16-year-old guest at her house.

Bessie then waited another seven years before filing a motion to annul Author’s marriage to Maryland on grounds of bigamy in Prince George’s County Circuit Court. Bessie acknowledged to the court that she sought the annulment to get a share of Author’s pension.

The circuit court dismissed Bessie’s motion, saying she lacked legal standing to seek the annulment based on bigamy because Author had married Maryland based on a good-faith belief he was lawfully divorced from Bessie based on the then-valid divorce decree.

On appeal, the Appellate Court said Bessie did have standing to seek the annulment because Author’s divorce from her had been vacated, thus reinstating their marriage.

“The effect was to create a bigamous marriage between Author and Maryland,” Wells wrote. “Therefore, contrary to the (circuit) court’s ruling, Bessie had standing in this unique situation to annul the bigamous marriage because that marriage directly affected her marriage to Author.”

But the Appellate Court ultimately held that she waited too long to seek the annulment.

Bessie’s attorney, Mary Paloger, said Monday that the court’s finding that Author and Maryland’s marriage was void based on his bigamy should have rendered moot the question of whether Bessie’s motion for annulment was filed too late.

“It’s an interesting case,” said Paloger, of East Coast Legal Group PC in Washington. “It’s our position that if the marriage (to Maryland) was void, the marriage was void.”

Paloger added no decision has yet been made on whether Bessie will seek review by the Maryland Supreme Court.

The Appellate Court did not hear arguments in the case but issued its decision based on the submitted briefs and the trial record. Maryland neither submitted a brief nor was represented by counsel before the Appellate Court, according to court records.

Wells was joined in the opinion by Judges Kevin F. Arthur and Glenn T. Harrell Jr., a retired jurist sitting by special assignment.

The Appellate Court issued its decision in Bessie Jean Peete v. Maryland Elizabeth Peete, No. 2098 September Term 2021.

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