Divorce proceeds as usual — even after death

/ Source: The Associated Press

Dr. John Yelenic and his wife, Michele, separated in 2002, agreed to get a divorce, and had even hammered out a property settlement.

But when the Blairsville, Pa., dentist was murdered April 13, the day before he was to sign his divorce papers, it set the stage for what attorneys say is a first-of-its-kind request in Pennsylvania: a divorce decree after death.

The dentist’s divorce attorney, Effie Alexander, says simply that Yelenic would haid. “You know how people say after someone is dead, ‘If there was one thing I could do for him now’? Well, this is really a personal thing for me and my law firm.”

Yelenic and his wife, Michele, of Indiana, Pa., married in 1997 and adopted a son, J.J., now 8. The couple separated in 2002 and Michele Yelenic filed for divorce in June 2003, citing an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

John Yelenic, 39, was murdered at his house on April 13. Investigators have not identified a suspect, but believe he was not a random victim. They have declined to speculate on a motive or even say how he died, other than that he bled to death after a violent attack.

The strange case of Yelenic’s divorce revolves around a January 2005 amendment to the state’s divorce code and the implications of a bifurcated, or two-part, divorce—one in which the divorce decree is issued separately from a property settlement.

A two-part divorce is used, for example, when a person wants to remarry without having to wait for the property settlement—which is often far more complicated—to be resolved, Blechman said.

Before the change in the law last year, the dead spouse’s will or estate laws held sway if a property settlement hadn’t been finalized, Blechman said.

Under the amendment, a judge can posthumously enforce a property settlement if grounds for the divorce existed when the spouse died.  Judge Hanna approved the settlement based on an affidavit Yelenic had signed saying the couple have lived apart for more than two years, which is grounds for divorce in Pennsylvania.

Michele Yelenic’s attorney, Daniel Lovette III, declined to comment on the case. But Lovette confirmed that he doesn’t oppose efforts by Alexander, the doctor’s divorce attorney, and Paul Anthony Bell II, the estate attorney, to seek the posthumous divorce decree.

Bell sees the divorce decree as a way to tie up loose ends.

“It seems to everybody that the divorce decree being granted would definitely put a seal on” the property agreement, Bell said.  “I guess we’re all leery that something might come up as to the estate aspect of it if the decree is not granted.”

Officials in at least one other state are grappling with posthumous divorces.

In Connecticut, Hayley Kissel is seeking to divorce her estranged husband, Andrew, a millionaire developer found slain in his Greenwich home last month. Millions of dollars are at stake.