In re Estate of Sterile, No. 2D04-1251.

CourtCourt of Appeal of Florida (US)
Writing for the CourtWALLACE.
Citation902 So.2d 915
Decision Date03 June 2005
Docket NumberNo. 2D04-1251.
PartiesIn re ESTATE OF Jean M. STERILE. Melissa Pierre, a/k/a Melissa Pierre Sterile, a/k/a Sodnie Duverge, Appellant, v. Yvette M. Trelles, as Guardian ad Litem for Samuel Sterile and Lucner Sterile, minors, Appellee.

902 So.2d 915

In re ESTATE OF Jean M. STERILE.
Melissa Pierre, a/k/a Melissa Pierre Sterile, a/k/a Sodnie Duverge, Appellant,
v.
Yvette M. Trelles, as Guardian ad Litem for Samuel Sterile and Lucner Sterile, minors, Appellee

No. 2D04-1251.

District Court of Appeal of Florida, Second District.

June 3, 2005.


902 So.2d 916
Nancy W. Gregoire and Elizabeth E. Daugherty of Bunnell, Woulfe, Kirschbaum, Keller, McIntyre & Gregoire, P.A., Fort Lauderdale; and Robert P. Di Stefano of Robert P. Di Stefano, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, for Appellant

Yvette M. Trelles of Trelles Law Group, P.A., West Palm Beach, for Appellee.

902 So.2d 917
WALLACE, Judge

In an allocation proceeding that ensued in the probate court after the settlement of an action for the wrongful death of Jean Michelet Sterile (the Decedent), the issue to be decided was whether Melissa Pierre, a/k/a Melissa Pierre Sterile, a/k/a Sodnie Duverge (Melissa), was the Decedent's surviving spouse. The probate court rejected Melissa's claim that she was married to the Decedent at the time of his death, and she appeals. Because the probate court improperly reached its decision by concluding that Melissa was estopped to assert that she was married to the Decedent instead of weighing the evidence concerning the existence of the marriage presented by the parties, we reverse the order under review and remand for further proceedings.

BACKGROUND

The Decedent was a native of Haiti. He moved to the United States in the 1980s but continued to travel back and forth to Haiti. The decedent had two sons who were born in the United States. The children's mother died in 1993 when the younger child was only six months old. The children were nine and six years of age when their father died.

On December 18, 1999, the Decedent was driving his 1993 Ford Explorer sport utility vehicle on a return trip from Miami to his home in Fort Myers. He was accompanied in the vehicle by his two sons, Melissa, and Marie Fortune (Melissa's friend). On Interstate 75 in Collier County, one of the Explorer's tires failed, and the vehicle rolled over several times as a result. The Decedent was seriously injured in the rollover and died the next day. All of the passengers survived the accident.

The Decedent died intestate. Melissa filed a petition for administration of the Decedent's estate and sought appointment as personal representative. The petition named Melissa as the Decedent's surviving spouse and listed his two sons as the only other heirs. Attached to the petition was an English translation of a Haitian document indicating that Melissa and the Decedent had been married in Haiti on February 7, 1996. The Lee County probate court routinely issued letters of administration for the Decedent's estate to Melissa.

The Decedent's sister, Suzie Sterile (Suzie), was appointed as guardian for his two sons. After her appointment, Suzie filed a petition in the probate court seeking the removal of Melissa as personal representative. In her petition, Suzie alleged: "There are compelling reasons and evidence to believe that Melissa Pierre is NOT the spouse of decedent Jean M. Sterile." Melissa did not withdraw her claim to be the Decedent's surviving spouse, but she did consent to the entry of an order substituting Suzie as personal representative. The probate court entered an appropriate order on the stipulation, and letters of administration were issued to Suzie.

In her capacity as personal representative, Suzie pursued an action for the wrongful death of the Decedent against Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., Bridgestone Corporation, Ford Motor Company, and others. Suzie's lawyers ultimately negotiated a settlement of the wrongful death action for a substantial sum. Suzie petitioned the probate court for approval of the settlement. As part of the settlement approval process, the probate court appointed Yvette M. Trelles, a member of The Florida Bar (the guardian ad litem), to represent the children concerning the proposed settlement. Because of the unresolved issue concerning whether Melissa had an interest in the recovery from the wrongful death action, the probate court

902 So.2d 918
bifurcated the settlement approval process. The probate court initially entered an order approving the amount of the settlement and authorizing the payment of the personal representative's attorney's fees and costs from the settlement proceeds. In this order, the probate court reserved the issue of the allocation and disbursement of the net settlement proceeds pending a determination of Melissa's interest in the recovery from the wrongful death action

Later, the probate court conducted an allocation hearing concerning the wrongful death settlement. The issue before the probate court at this hearing was whether Melissa was the Decedent's surviving spouse. Suzie had a conflict of interest relative to the outcome of the allocation process because she was both the personal representative of the Decedent's estate and the guardian of his two sons. Perhaps it was for this reason that she did not participate in the allocation hearing except as a witness. Instead, the guardian ad litem for the two minors opposed Melissa's claim to be the Decedent's surviving spouse.

At the beginning of the allocation hearing, the probate court ruled that Melissa had the burden of proving the existence of the disputed marriage. Melissa has not challenged that ruling on this appeal. The parties have not directly addressed the separate issue of what law is applicable to the determination of the validity of the disputed marriage. However, both parties consulted experts on Haitian law prior to the hearing and apparently proceeded on the assumption that the law of Haiti is controlling.1 "[A] valid marriage according to the law of a foreign nation will be recognized as such in the United States." American Airlines, Inc. v. Mejia, 766 So.2d 305, 307 n. 5 (Fla. 4th DCA 2000). See also Montano v. Montano, 520 So.2d 52, 52-53 (Fla. 3d DCA 1988). Having stated the pertinent background, we turn now to a review of the evidence presented by each of the parties on the existence of the disputed marriage.

THE EVIDENCE PRESENTED

A. Melissa's Evidence

1. The Performance of the Ceremony

Melissa began her case by presenting the testimony of several witnesses who testified by video deposition that they were present at the ceremony conducted in Haiti when Melissa and the Decedent were married.2 Francois Turnier, who was the pastor of a church in Haiti, testified that he performed the ceremony uniting Melissa and the Decedent in matrimony. Pastor Turnier knew the couple before the wedding because Melissa attended the church; the Decedent also attended the church when he was in Haiti. Pastor Turnier affirmed that the ceremony was regularly performed and that the parties had a bona fide marriage.

Marc Duverge, Melissa's brother, testified that he attended the wedding of his sister and the Decedent on February 7, 1996. Three additional witnesses testified to the performance of the wedding ceremony between Melissa and the Decedent. These witnesses were: Nadia Duverge,

902 So.2d 919
Melissa's sister; Paulette Louis Jeune, Melissa's mother; and Rosange Lubin, an acquaintance.

2. The Documentary Evidence

Pastor Turnier identified a copy of a page from the church's marriage register indicating that Melissa and the Decedent were married on February 7, 1996. An authenticated copy of the page from the marriage register was received in evidence. Marc Duverge identified his signature on the marriage register as one of the witnesses to the wedding. In addition, Pastor Turnier identified several photographs depicting Melissa, the Decedent, and several other persons participating in a ritual that the pastor testified was the wedding ceremony. The photographs were also received in evidence. Marc Duverge identified Melissa, the Decedent, Pastor Turnier, himself, and other persons portrayed in the photographs.

In addition to the authenticated copy of the page from the church's marriage register, Melissa introduced into evidence an authenticated copy of the corrected minutes from the Haitian National Archives in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, concerning the marriage of Melissa and the Decedent on February 7, 1996. Jean-Frédéric Salès, a Haitian attorney and professor of law at the University of Quisqueya in Haiti, testified concerning this document. Professor Salès was qualified as an expert on Haitian law without objection.

Professor Salès testified that the authenticated copy of the marriage record from the Haitian National Archive that was received in evidence stated that "Sodnie Duverge was married to Jean Michelet Sterile [the Decedent]" and that "Sodnie Duverge and Melissa Pierre are one and the same person." Professor Salès testified further that after a review of the pertinent documents, he was of the opinion that Melissa and the Decedent were legally married under Haitian law. Professor...

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16 practice notes
  • Cohen v. Shushan, Case No. 2D15–4629
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • March 15, 2017
    ...valid common law marriage—which, again, is not a recognized form of marriage under Israeli law. Cf. In re Estate of Sterile , 902 So.2d 915, 919 n.4 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) (observing that "[i]n the reported Florida cases, evidence relating to general repute and cohabitation as husband and wife ......
  • Savage v. State, No. 2D12–2269.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • August 30, 2013
    ...testimony and evidence based upon its observation of the bearing, demeanor and credibility of the witnesses.’ ” In re Estate of Sterile, 902 So.2d 915, 922 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) (quoting Shaw v. Shaw, 334 So.2d 13, 16 (Fla.1976)). Our aseptic record cannot replicate what the trial court observ......
  • Fintak v. Fintak, No. 2D12–3407.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • August 23, 2013
    ...So.3d 187]Blumberg, 790 So.2d at 1066 (quoting Chase & Co. v. Little, 116 Fla. 667, 156 So. 609, 610–11 (1934)); In re Estate of Sterile, 902 So.2d 915, 922 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005). First, in this case, Shirley's act of listing the Trust as a devisee on the petition for administration and as an ......
  • Harrington v. State, No. 4D16–1084
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • February 21, 2018
    ...and evidence based upon its observation of the bearing, demeanor and credibility of the witnesses.’ " (quoting In re Estate of Sterile , 902 So.2d 915, 922 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) ) ).B. Revocation of Probation In the same "Order finding Violation of Probation," the trial court, "[b]ased on the ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
16 cases
  • Cohen v. Shushan, Case No. 2D15–4629
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • March 15, 2017
    ...valid common law marriage—which, again, is not a recognized form of marriage under Israeli law. Cf. In re Estate of Sterile , 902 So.2d 915, 919 n.4 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) (observing that "[i]n the reported Florida cases, evidence relating to general repute and cohabitation as husband and wife ......
  • Savage v. State, No. 2D12–2269.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • August 30, 2013
    ...testimony and evidence based upon its observation of the bearing, demeanor and credibility of the witnesses.’ ” In re Estate of Sterile, 902 So.2d 915, 922 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) (quoting Shaw v. Shaw, 334 So.2d 13, 16 (Fla.1976)). Our aseptic record cannot replicate what the trial court observ......
  • Fintak v. Fintak, No. 2D12–3407.
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • August 23, 2013
    ...So.3d 187]Blumberg, 790 So.2d at 1066 (quoting Chase & Co. v. Little, 116 Fla. 667, 156 So. 609, 610–11 (1934)); In re Estate of Sterile, 902 So.2d 915, 922 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005). First, in this case, Shirley's act of listing the Trust as a devisee on the petition for administration and as an ......
  • Harrington v. State, No. 4D16–1084
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Florida (US)
    • February 21, 2018
    ...and evidence based upon its observation of the bearing, demeanor and credibility of the witnesses.’ " (quoting In re Estate of Sterile , 902 So.2d 915, 922 (Fla. 2d DCA 2005) ) ).B. Revocation of Probation In the same "Order finding Violation of Probation," the trial court, "[b]ased on the ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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