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On May 29, 2019, the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland issued an opinion in In the Matter of Robert H. Watkins, Jr. in which the Court denied to a widow a spousal share of the Estate under the common law doctrine of “unclean hands” because the marriage was procured by undue influence.  This was a case of first impression in Maryland.

Robert F. Watkins, Jr., was a real estate and racehorse owner in Maryland.  Mr. Watkins was raised by an affluent family in Maryland and he was married three times.  It was during his second marriage to Jasmine Watkins that he first met his widow, Emeline Wilson Watkins.  Mr. Watkins met Emeline at Bloomingdales in early 2012 when he was shopping with his then terminally ill wife, Jasmine.  Emeline worked the make-up counter at Bloomingdales and assisted the couple.  It was during this encounter that Emeline learned of Jasmine’s terminal condition and Mr. Watkin’s ownership of real estate and racehorses.  Soon after, Emeline met Mr. Watkins for lunch.  Jasmine died of cancer on March 17, 2012.   According to family, Mr. Watkins was devastated and depressed following his wife’s death.  He was confused, acted erratically and expressed suicidal thoughts.

After Jasmine’s death, Mr. Watkins spent most of his time with Emeline.   His daughter, Shannon, noticed that her father was drawing significant cashier’s checks on the joint account she held with him.  Shannon also observed Emeline convincing her father to procure additional draws.

Mr. Watkin’s family testified that Mr. Watkins had no intention or desire to marry Emeline, but that Emeline was insistent.  During a trip to West Virginia in August 2012, Emeline jumped on Mr. Watkins chest, beat and scratched him when he refused to marry her.  On September 24, 2012, in Broward County, Florida, Mr. Watkins and Emily were married.  No family or friends were present.

After the wedding, the couple moved to Florida. Shannon and her husband, Jeffrey, made repeated attempts to visit her father both in Florida and Maryland.  They were repeatedly denied access to him by Emeline.  When they did manage to see him in 2014, they learned that he had purchased several new high end luxury vehicles, valued at over $197,000 and Emeline threw away Mr. Watkin’s cellphone and disconnected the home phone.  In late August 2014, Mr. Watkins was hospitalized and during this time Emeline made daily ATM withdrawals of the maximum permitted by the Bank.   Mr. Watkins died on August 30, 2014.

The Orphans Court of Prince Georges’ County determined through application of Florida law that Emeline unduly induced Mr. Watkins to marry her through physical and emotional domination.  The Orphans’ Court held that this undue influence eliminated any rights she may have had to her spousal share of Mr. Watkin’s estate.  On appeal, the Court of Special Appeals held that Maryland law, and not Florida law, applies, requiring the Court to consider the matter under Maryland law. The Court of Special Appeals agreed that Emeline had no right to any share of Mr. Watkin’s estate under Maryland’s “unclean hands” legal doctrine.

The doctrine of “unclean hands” protects the court from endorsing or rewarding inequitable conduct.  See Adams v. Manown, 328 Md. 463 (1992).  The doctrine refuses to recognize or provide relief from the court “for those guilty of unlawful or inequitable conduct pertaining to the matter in which relief is sought.” See Hicks v. Gilbert, 135 Md. App. 394 (2000).  Prior to this case, no Maryland courts have applied the “unclean hands” doctrine in any marital relationship and a spouse’s rights to a statutory share under an estate.

Judge James R. Eyler, writing for the Court of Special Appeals, held “Emeline exercise undue influence over the Decedent to cause him to marry her for financial gain.  Had Emeline engaged in the same conduct to cause Decedent to change his Will to her advantage, the Will could have been set aside on that basis…There is a clear nexus between Emeline’s “improper conduct” and her claim before the Orphan’s Court to a statutory share of the estate…Emeline’s inequitable conduct in achieving her status as a surviving spouse bars her from making a claim before the Orphan’s Court for a statutory share of the Estate.”

The case makes new law in Maryland, and may be headed for the Court of Appeals.

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