Family Law Corner: Real Housewives, Real Problems


The Real Housewives franchise has spawned a number of series with drama on-screen and off.  In particular, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills has had considerable media attention with the Kelsey and Camille Grammer divorce and now with the suicide of Russell Armstrong. 

Russell and Taylor Armstrong appeared on the first season of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and their marital problems were slated to be a prominent part of the upcoming season, according to gossip website TMZ.  In July of this year, Ms. Armstrong filed for dissolution, but did not file any motions requesting temporary orders.  In an interview with People Magazine, she accused Mr. Armstrong of physical abuse during their marriage.  Just two weeks after filing for divorce, the Armstrongs were named as co-defendants in a lawsuit alleging that they mislead investors in company.  Just two weeks later, only one month after the divorce was filed, Mr. Armstrong killed himself.

Death of a spouse during a divorce leads to a number of questions.  Under Family Code §310, a marriage is dissolved by the death of one of the parties which means that the divorce action ends.   However, the court is allowed to enter judgment on matters that were already adjudicated before the death occurred.  (Marriage of Mallory (1997) 55 CA4th 1165).  Since the Armstrongs had only started their divorce a month before, the Court does not have this option and the case ends.  This effectively makes the parties married people upon Mr. Armstrong’s death and any testamentary instrument (a will and/or trust) or intestacy law controls the distribution of his separate property and his half of the community property.  In essence, dying so early in the divorce proceeding is like no divorce was started.

If the Armstrongs had sought a bifurcated judgment terminating their marital status before the rest of the case was adjudicated, as happened in their co-star Camille Grammer’s divorce, the outcome would be different.  When status has been terminated, so that the parties are single people again, the Court has jurisdiction to make judgments on the remaining issues in the case. (Kinsler v. Superior Court (1981) 121 CA3d 808).  Becoming single again during a divorce action has its own concerns including ending health insurance coverage and loss of retirement benefits to a new spouse.