Succession of Willie Clyde Burns
Opinion Date: December 9, 2022
Judge: Jefferson D. Hughes, III
Areas of Law: Family Law, Trusts & Estates
The decedent Willie Clyde Burns married Silver Ruth Cooper in 1959. The couple lived in Claiborne Parish, Louisiana and had three children. A divorce petition was filed in 1966 in Arkansas, captioned “Sybia Ruth Burns vs. W. C. Burns.” A final judgment of divorce was rendered on August 26, 1966 by the Arkansas court. Willie filed a divorce petition in Claiborne Parish in 1967, and the petition was served on Silver, captioned “W.C. Burns (Col.) vs. Sylvia Ruth Burns.” There was no judgment of final divorce rendered in this case. Silver went on to marry Welcome Boyd in 1968. Willie went on to marry Annie Bradley in 1970. Annie testified at trial that at the start of their marriage she and Willie had no assets and that anything Willie owned at the time of his death was acquired during their marriage. The couple was married for 45 years and had two children. Willie died intestate in 2015. Annie petitioned to open Willie’s succession and appoint an administratrix. Silver filed a Petition in Intervention in which she sought to be named Willie’s surviving spouse as she was never lawfully divorced from him. In support of her position, Silver provided a report by a forensic document examiner who concluded that the signatures on the documents of both divorce proceedings did not belong to Silver. She also testified that she never went by the names Sybia or Sylvia. The trial court granted the petition to intervene, declared the Arkansas divorce invalid, and recognized Silver as the legal wife of Willie at the time of his death. In addition, the trial court found that Annie was a good faith putative spouse based on Annie’s testimony that Willie told her he was divorced. The trial court then said that the estate would be divided according to the formula in Prince v. Hopson, 89 So.2d 128 (La. 1956), allocating one-fourth of the community to the legal spouse, one-fourth to the putative spouse, and the decedent’s one half to his heirs. The Lousiana Supreme Court reversed the trial court's division of the community, finding that as a good faith putative spouse, Annie had an undivided one-half interest in the community. Willie’s five children were to divide equally his undivided one-half interest in the community, subject to Annie’s usufruct.
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