By Jason Stern
Paul Walker, the actor, died on November 30, 2013 in a fiery car accident in the Santa Clarita section of L.A. The late actor, famous for his role in the cult Fast and Furious movies, left behind a $25 million dollar estate to his 15-year-old daughter, Meadow Rain Walker. However Paul Walker also left behind a longtime girlfriend of 7 years, Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell who was not in his will. It was widely believed by friends of the longtime couple they would eventually marry, but Paul Walker’s life was cut too short to find out. During the 7 years Paul and Jasmine were together, Paul had never updated his will. Whether intentional or not Paul’s longtime girlfriend Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell stands to lose a substantial share of the $25 million dollar Paul Walker Estate.
It is unclear what legal actions if any Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell and her estate lawyers will pursue. Neither California nor New York recognizes common law marriages between partners who are unmarried and cohabitation with one another. Had Paul Walker and Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell been married she would automatically be entitled to exercise her spousal right of election, enabling her the right to inherit a 1/3 one-third share of the $25 million dollar Paul Walker Estate.
As a NY right of election lawyer we handle many cases that involve similar right of election issues. In this case, Paul Walker the testator drafted his last will & testament 12 years ago, 5 years before meeting his longtime girlfriend Jasmine. Perhaps the 40 year old never thought about revising his will because of youthful exuberance or perhaps it was a mere oversight. In either case 7 years is an awfully long time to be with someone without contemplating marriage.
In both New York and California had Paul Walker and Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell actually been married her legal situation would be very different. Despite being omitted from Walker’s will Jasmine would still have been entitled to inherit her spousal 1/3 right of election from his $25 million dollar estate whether the omission was intentional or an innocent oversight. I can tell you as a NY right of election estate lawyer that Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell is now going to have a very difficult time pursuing any legal action against the Walker estate because they were never married.
That is not to say Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell’s legal situation couldn’t improve with the right estate lawyer. It could. Both theories of right of election and the court’s ability to recognize common law marriages are ancient doctrine founded on the legal principals of equity. Equity is the canon we base all rules of contract law on and simply refers to the quality of being fair and impartial.
As both a NY estate lawyer and as a person I wonder if it is fair to deny a perspective spouse and significant other of 7 seven years their right of election because of an oversight? Even in jurisdictions such as NY and California that do not recognize the principle of common law marriage I would argue no, this is not the equitable result the Courts or testator intended. In the landmark 1976 California case of Marvin v. Marvin, it was decided that Palimony could be sought even among plaintiffs who were not legally married. Here the longtime girlfriend of famous actor Lee Marvin brought suit against him for spousal support after she was removed from his household. While the court rejected the girlfriend’s argument on evidentiary grounds the Court recognized the equitable precept of Palimony. Unlike alimony, which is between married couples, Palimony is the financial sharing and/or support determined in a civil court of equity founded in the law of contract.
While many states have abolished the doctrine of common law marriage this rule of law may still apply in those jurisdictions. In instances where a non-marital relationship contract exists expressly or impliedly, orally or in writing, the burden rests on the plaintiff to illustrate the existence of such a contract. Such contracts, analogous to the Marvin case, involve one partner who is established and another who delays or foregoes the pursuit of their own career for the sake of the relationship. While the Plaintiff in Marvin v. Marvin failed to prove an existence of a contract between herself and Lee Marvin, this legal theory is no less valid where it is reduced to a signed writing or where steps were taken in reliance on a future nuptial.
Any experienced NY estate lawyer can tell you rules of law are always subject to the interpretations dictated by the principles of equity also known as common sense. Further engrained in the NY estate law is the concept of having clean hands in negotiations and fair dealings. This is especially true when interpreting the NY right of election laws. Conversely, just as Courts implement the right of election doctrine between spouses to prevent spousal hardship in estate matters, they have also been known to deny it.
In a series of NY estate cases involving spousal rights of election, Courts refused to acknowledge the spousal entitlement to estate assets. Despite being legally married, Surrogate’s Courts of New York have repeatedly denied rights of election when it would constitute unconscionably harsh results administered by the rigid application of the Estate Law. In one such decision a NY estate lawyer argued that the 99-year-old decedent’s 47-year-old “spouse” was a predator. The 47-year-old live in caretaker secretly married her 99-year-old victim in a clandestine fashion keeping the marriage secret for more than a year. The Court also found the 99-year-old decedent lacked the requisite mental capacity to enter into the marriage. As such the “lawful spouse” was denied her 1/3 one third right of election of the decedent’s $5 million dollar estate pursuant to Section 5 of the (EPTL) Estates and Powers Trust Law.
As such, under the EPTL the Court is well within its discretion to deny a legal spouse their right of election of an estate. Conversely, an experienced NY estate lawyer could argue the opposite, that the Courts are also obligated to find an equitable solution when the claims of a significant other are not founded on an actual marriage but a legal contract nonetheless. Doesn’t it stand to reason that Paul Walker’s girlfriend of 7 years should be an interested recipient of his estate? Perhaps if not to the extent of a spouse Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell should at the very least be a claimant of thePaul Walker Estate. I’m sure amidst her grief Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell is looking for some degree of recognition from the Walker family as his long time significant other and soul mate. Not every feeling or emotion needs to be reduced to a piece of paper with the words marriage certificate on it to be real. I’m sure Paul Walker and Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell’s feelings for one another were very real. For her to walk away from this experience snubbed by what was most likely an oversight in Paul Walker’s estate planning is wrong and demeans everything they had together. This cannot and should not be the equitable solution here or the legacy of a great actor.
The simple truth is most people with the exception of estate lawyers ever think about the updating of their wills. Had Paul Walker drafted a will closer in time to his death one could rest easier knowing that the reading of his will matched his actual wishes and desires at the time of his passing. However this is not the case. It is very important to update your will at critical points in time after key life events such as getting married, having children and even grandchildren. In light of the above perhaps a seven year relationship should be one too.
If you or a loved one is thinking about updating their estate, feel free to speak with a NY estate lawyer for a free consultation at The Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates at (718) 261-2444. Our estate lawyers have nearly 45 years of combined NY estate law experience drafting and probating the wills for families like yours in the counties of Queens, New York, Kings, Bronx, Westchester, Rockland, Nassau, Orange, Dutchess as well as in the State of New Jersey.