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The too-helpful hand: Half a century later, patterns emerge

Predatory behavior in a caregiver is, unfortunately, common.

When 58-year-old Pearl Choate interviewed with elderly millionaires Otis and Estelle Birch at their 32-room California mansion for a private nursing job in the mid-1960s, she carried with her a history that included six marriages and a 12-year stint in a Texas prison for murder.

Two weeks later she was the Birches’ only caregiver.

Changes quickly happened. News reports show that, somehow, Pearl’s name ended up on the title to the Birches’ oil wells, Utah mill and mansion. After firing the Birches’ only other employee and hiring her brother as their watchman, Pearl kept the Birchs isolated from their friends and family. Within a year Pearl had all the contents of the mansion hauled off and had moved senile Estelle and deaf, near-blind Otis into her small home in Compton so she could better attend to them. Then all three disappeared.

Estelle’s distant relatives became alarmed and petitioned to have a guardian appointed in California. The couple was not discovered until Estelle died in Breckenridge, Texas. Two weeks after Estelle’s death, Pearl married Otis. He was 95 years old.

Five months later Otis, too, was dead.

After Otis’ death, it was discovered that he had changed his will to leave his entire estate, at one time valued at $200 million, to Pearl. In 1970, after a three-year court fight, a Dallas court admitted Otis’ will to probate. Pearl had won.

There were a lot of people who were convinced that Pearl Choate was a predator, although that was a label that Pearl vigorously disputed. Predatory behavior in a caregiver is, unfortunately, common. A bit less common, but even more ominous, is predatory marriage. By marrying the victim, the predator, as a surviving spouse, can be entitled to several protections under Texas law, including the right to stay in the homestead and receive a widow’s allowance. Historically there has been little that family or friends could do to challenge a suspected predatory marriage after the victim died.

In 2007, Texas changed that by adopting a law that allows some marriages to be voided after death. The application must be filed by someone who is interested (that’s a statutory definition) in the decedent’s estate.

Only marriages that are less than three years old can be voided. However, there is a loophole. If at the time the decedent died there was already a lawsuit seeking to void the marriage, then that lawsuit can continue. Thus, some marriages that are older than three years could be voided.

Assuming there is not already a pending lawsuit, then the window to file an application is extremely narrow: one year after the decedent’s death.

The grounds to void a marriage after death are equally narrow; it is limited to lack of mental capacity. The applicant must prove that, on the date of marriage, the decedent did not have the mental capacity to consent to the marriage and that the decedent did not understand the nature of the marriage ceremony. Mistake, fraud, duress or predatory behavior are not sufficient statutory grounds to void a marriage after death.

After Otis’ death, Pearl served another 20 months in prison for firing a .22 caliber rifle during a dispute with a tenant. She died in 1983.

By all accounts, Otis and Estelle Birch – wealthy, elderly and childless – were already isolated when Pearl came into their lives. This story might have ended differently had they kept active with a close circle of friends and advisers, who would have served as a safety net as they aged.

Virginia Hammerle is president of Hammerle Finley Law Firm and board-certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in civil trial law. To receive her newsletter, email legaltalktexas@hammerle.com or visit hammerle.com. This column does not constitute legal advice.

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