Fernando v. Sapukotana (In re Estate of Sapukotana), 2013–CA–01900–SCT.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Mississippi
Writing for the CourtKING, Justice, for the Court
Citation179 So.3d 1105
Parties In re In the Matter of the Estate of Sarath SAPUKOTANA; Palihawadanage Ramya Chandralatha Fernando v. Martha Gay Weaver SAPUKOTANA.
Docket NumberNo. 2013–CA–01900–SCT.,2013–CA–01900–SCT.
Decision Date17 December 2015

179 So.3d 1105

In re In the Matter of the Estate of Sarath SAPUKOTANA; Palihawadanage Ramya Chandralatha Fernando
Martha Gay Weaver SAPUKOTANA.

No. 2013–CA–01900–SCT.

Supreme Court of Mississippi.

Dec. 17, 2015.

179 So.3d 1107

Nitin Kaushik, James M. Brown, Laurel, attorneys for appellant.

Wayne Dowdy, Dunbar D. Watt, Magnolia, attorneys for appellee.


KING, Justice, for the Court:

¶ 1. The present case calls upon this Court to determine the validity of a Florida divorce decree issued in 1995. Sarath Sapukotana (Sarath) and Palihawadanage Ramya Chandralatha Fernando (Fernando) were married in Sri Lanka in 1992. Sarath moved to the United States a year later. In 1995, a Florida court entered an uncontested divorce decree, dissolving the marriage of Sarath and Fernando. In 2004, Sarath then married Martha Gay Weaver Sapukotana (Martha) in Mississippi. Sarath died intestate in 2008 from injuries which led to a wrongful death suit. The trial court granted Martha's petition to be named the administratrix of the estate, over the objection of Fernando, Sarath's first wife. This allowed Martha to file, and later to settle, the wrongful death claim. Fernando claims that the 1995 Florida divorce decree was fraudulent and void for lack of service of process, and that she instead is the rightful beneficiary to Sarath's estate and to the proceeds of the wrongful death action. Fernando filed a motion to vacate the chancery court's decision to appoint Martha as administratrix of Sarath's estate. The chancery court dismissed Fernando's motion and held that

179 So.3d 1108

Martha was the rightful beneficiary to Sarath's estate. Fernando appeals. Because the Wayne County Chancery Court lacked authority to vacate the 1995 Florida divorce decree, we affirm the decision of the chancery court.


¶ 2. Sarath and Fernando married in Columbo, Sri Lanka, on February 5, 1992. Both Sarath and Fernando were Sri Lankan citizens. Sarath then moved to the United States in July 1993.

¶ 3. Approximately two years later, Sarath filed for a divorce from Fernando in the Circuit Court of the 17th Judicial Circuit in and for Broward County, Florida. In response, Fernando allegedly signed a Waiver of Process, an Answer, and a Waiver for Dissolution of Marriage, in which she waived service of process and agreed to all terms of the divorce. The waiver appears to have been notarized by a notary public in Sri Lanka. On October 25, 1995, the Broward County Circuit Court dissolved the marriage between Sarath and Fernando.

¶ 4. On February 11, 2004, Sarath married Martha in Mississippi.1 Sarath's marriages did not produce heirs.

¶ 5. Sarath then filed for a second divorce from Fernando on February 15, 2007, in the District Court of Colombo, Sri Lanka. The divorce complaint stated that Sarath had gone to the United States for employment on or about July 7, 1993, in order to have a better future. After repeated failed attempts to bring Fernando to the United States, Sarath returned to Sri Lanka "with the intention to continue married life with [Fernando] in their marital residence...." Instead of welcoming Sarath, "[Fernando] with her relatives and a few unknown people in the house came to assault the plaintiff." Fernando refused Sarath's further attempts to reconcile their marriage, and Sarath filed for a divorce on the grounds of malicious desertion. Fernando contested the complaint and moved for the complaint to be dismissed in limine. Sarath returned to Mississippi shortly afterwards.

¶ 6. Sarath was employed as a truck driver and, while in Arizona, he was involved in an eighteen-wheeler accident on January 3, 2008. On January 8, 2008, Sarath died intestate as the result of his injuries. The divorce action in Sri Lanka remained pending.

¶ 7. On February 4, 2008, Martha filed a Petition for Letters of Administration in the Chancery Court of Wayne County, alleging that Martha was Sarath's sole beneficiary and requesting appointment as administratrix of the estate.2 Sarath's estate consisted mainly of the damages accrued from the wrongful death suit. He owned no real property and his personal property included a vehicle jointly owned with Martha, clothing, and other effects. Fernando filed a Reply to the Petition for Letters of Administration on February 8, 2008, alleging that the Florida divorce decree was invalid, that Sarath's marriage to Martha was bigamous, and that Fernando continued to be the lawful spouse of Sarath. Fernando also alleged that Sarath's marriage to Martha was a sham marriage in order to obtain a green card. Fernando requested that Premalal Ranasinghe (Premalal) be appointed administrator of

179 So.3d 1109

Sarath's estate as attorney-in-fact for Fernando. Premalal stated that he was an attorney in Sri Lanka and had completed twenty-four credits at the New York Law School in order to take the New York Bar Examination.

¶ 8. On March 25, 2008, the Wayne County Chancery Court granted Martha's petition and named Martha as the administratrix of Sarath's estate. In the hearing transcript on the motion, the trial judge stated that Martha was the proper administratrix of the estate, because at that time, the trial court was required to give full faith and credit to the Florida divorce decree. The trial judge reasoned that Martha would pursue the wrongful death claim, and then the funds would go into the estate. The funds would be held in the estate until a determination could be made under Mississippi law as to who the wrongful death beneficiaries would be. No appeal was taken from this decision. Martha then filed a wrongful death suit in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona on May 28, 2008, naming as parties Martha and the Estate of Sarath, by and through its representative Martha.

¶ 9. Around June 2009, in the Broward County Circuit Court in Florida, Fernando filed a Motion for Vacating Judgment of Divorce. On August 27, 2009, Martha filed a Motion to Intervene. On November 4, 2009, the Broward County Circuit Court entered an order confirming that Fernando voluntarily had withdrawn her motion challenging the 1995 divorce decree without prejudice. Fernando stated that she had withdrawn the motion for technical reasons.

¶ 10. Fernando next filed a motion to intervene in the Arizona wrongful death suit on November 29, 2009. Fernando argued that she was the lawful wife of Sarath and moved the Arizona court to declare the 1995 Florida divorce decree null and void. On July 20, 2010, the district court denied Fernando's motion to intervene and found that it was precluded from reviewing state court judgments involving matters of domestic relations, and that the United States Supreme Court had divested the federal courts of power to issue divorce decrees. Fernando appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court. Both of these appeals were denied.

¶ 11. On June 4, 2012, the parties to the wrongful death action stipulated to the dismissal of the Estate of Sarath Sapukotana as a party to the lawsuit. On the same day, the remaining parties reached a settlement in the action and stipulated to the dismissal of the matter with prejudice.

¶ 12. On July 23, 2012, Fernando filed a Motion to Remove the Personal Representative Based on Fraud and Abuse of Process, to Determine the Validity of the Florida Divorce and to Determine the Beneficiary of the Estate in the Wayne County Chancery Court. Premalal was the only person who signed the motion. Premalal was not admitted pro hac vice in the state of Mississippi, and no Mississippi attorney appeared for Fernando. Fernando argued that Martha deceitfully had dropped the estate as a party in the wrongful death action and had settled the suit, because Martha could not prove that she was the rightful wife of Sarath. Fernando again maintained that the Florida court lacked subject matter and personal jurisdiction to enter a divorce decree. Fernando asked the court to remove Martha as administratrix and to replace her with Premalal, to order Martha's attorneys to deposit the settlement money with the court, to schedule a full evidentiary hearing to determine the validity of the Florida divorce decree, to declare the beneficiary

179 So.3d 1110

of Sarath's estate, to pay any outstanding bills of the hospital, to sanction Martha's attorneys for dropping the estate's claim, and to allow the new administrator of the estate to reinstate the wrongful death action. Martha filed a counterclaim to the motion on August 6, 2012, requesting a declaratory judgment and a hearing to find that Martha was the decedent's only wife at the time of his death and was his sole beneficiary.

¶ 13. On August 15, 2012, the Chancery Court of Wayne County, Mississippi, dismissed Fernando's motion and granted Martha's counterclaim. The chancery court found that Premalal was a foreign attorney not licensed to practice law in Mississippi and that Premalal had failed to comply with the provisions of Mississippi Rule of Appellate Procedure 46(b)(2), which allow a foreign attorney to...

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