Court declares 9/11 widow as husband’s heir
A New York State Surrogate Court has recognized a Filipina-American widow as the surviving spouse of a World Trade Center victim, giving her all the legal rights to her late husband’s estate, including a million-dollar compensation as a 9/11 widow.
The court, ending a two-year legal tussle, appointed Paulinita Punzalan of Roosevelt Island, N.Y., as the administrator of the estate of her late husband, Edward Frank Beyea, who died on Sept. 11, 2001 without a last will and testament. Beyea remains were never recovered.
As a result, the letters of administration issued in November 2001 to Beyea’s nephew, Sean Southard, Esq., has been revoked.
Punzalan, a registered nurse at Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island, was represented by the Law Offices of Abad, Constancio & Mallonga, LLC, which successfully proved that she was married to Beyea, a 42-year-old quadriplegic who was at the 27th floor of his Blue Cross/Blue Shield office on 1 WTC when the terrorists attacked. Beyea was the company’s chief computer analyst.
Sean Southard, in his reply to Punzalan’s petition, says Beyea was never married to Punzalan. He says that although the two were married in church, no marriage license was obtained and no marriage certificate was filed with any government entity.
It also came to light that Punzalan was not living with Beyea at the time of his death.
Punzalan’s attorneys, Leopoldo A. Abad and Dennis J. Ortiguera, argued that the couple—after being married by a priest on Feb. 13, 1988 at the Lady of Grace Chapel of Goldwater Memorial Hospital—did not obtain a civil license because a civil union would have caused Beyea to forfeit essential medical assistance that they could not privately finance.
Punzalan’s Fil-Am lawyers, citing the law and other similar cases, argued that “any marriage solemnized between persons of full age shall not be rendered void by reason of a failure to procure a marriage license.”
The Surrogate Court agreed, stating: “A marriage solemnized in a ceremony performed by a clergyman is a valid marriage under the laws of the State of New York. Nor does the failure to obtain a marriage license render a marriage void.”
The lawyers also pointed out that Punzalan had to leave their marital residence in 1996 after a home health attendant, whom Beyea became involved with while Punzalan was at work, began threatening Punzalan with physical harm and demanded that Punzalan move out.
Punzalan left without objection from Beyea, who was concerned for Punzalan’s safety, the lawyers said. But the affair with the non-Filipino attendant lasted only a few weeks. Although Punzalan did not return to their marital home, she continued to live nearby, maintained personal contact with Beyea until the time of his death, and never filed for divorce or marriage annulment, the lawyers added.
A longtime friend and neighbor also testified about Beyea’s continuing remorse, and which the court also considered in its decision.
Punzalan, a registered nurse met Beyea at Goldwater Memorial Hospital when she took care of him following a diving accident that left quadriplegic. After he was discharged from the hospital, Beyear kept in touch with Punzalan, until they fell in love. They moved into an apartment on Roosevelt Island in 1984 and married a day before Valentine’s Day in 1988.
In fighting for her rights to be recognized as Beyea’s surviving spouse, Punzalan’s complicated case was turned down by other lawyers until she saw the advertisement of Abad, Constancio & Mallonga while reading the Filipino Reporter.
“I was given the runaround by several groups related to 9/11 and I have been referred from one agency to another,” Punzalan, a native of Calumpit, Bulacan, told the Reporter. “I was in a limbo and didn’t know what to do. The agencies would not accept the marriage certificate from the church and they were asking for more an dI just kept on explaining to them what happened to no avail. Thank God my lawyers were very, very good and did an excellent job.”
Punzalan’s counsel, Abad, said he initially though “we had a weak case” considering that they couldn’t even get a death certificate for the state, which refused to recognize Punzalan as the legal wife citing the absence of marriage registration from the City Hall.
“In the beginning, we were a little bit hesitant to accept the case because I thought it’s a long shot,” Abad told the Reporter.
“But after I heard her story—that she took her husband for almost 12 years, helped in his rehabilitation and took care of everything for him—I knew that she deserved justice and we decided to take her case. I’m just happy it turned out the way it should be.”
“After studying the case and doing extensive research, we knew that we had a good chance of winning,” said Ortiguera, co-counsel. “We had all the witnesses on her side and we had strong pieces of evidence.”
“But it was not just about money,” he pointed out. “We wanted the family (of Beyea) to recognize the hardships and sacrifices of Paulinita as the wife of Ed. That part, which is not really legal, was even harder than our legal battle. In the end, they had to accept her as the legal wife.”
Ortiguera said Punzalan, in a display of selflessness, gave away a part of the estate and funds to people close to her and Beyea, including Beyea’s mother.
On the third anniversary of 9/11, Punzalan said a memorial mass will be offered for Beyea on Sept. 13 at the chapel where they exchanged marital vows.