A recent Minnesota appellate court decided whether relatives of an ex-spouse inherits. Minnesota law is similar to Florida law and this case illustrates the importance of reviewing your documents after a divorce to be sure they reflect your intent.
In Matter of the Estate of “Mathew Joseph Tomczik, Deceased“, the Appeals court reversed and remanded the decision of a District court. Mathew and Sara married in 1992 and divorced in 2019. At Mathew’s death, he had not remarried, had no children, Sara had no children and had two living heirs-at-law, her parents, (Sara’s parents).
Mathew signed a Last Will and Testament (“Will”) in February 1995 which named Sara as his beneficiary, but, if not living, then he distributed his residuary estate 1/2 to his heirs-at-law (his “siblings”) and 1/2 to Sara’s heirs-at-law (Sara’s parents). The personal representative named under the Will was Mathew’s brother, Michael.
Michael filed a petition for administration and only named Mathew’s siblings as the beneficiaries and omitted Sara’s parents. The Minnesota statute, similar to the Florida statute, states that if a divorce occurs prior to death, then the Will is to be given effect as if the former spouse died immediately before dissolution of the marriage. The issue is whether the statute also caused the residual devise to Sara’s parents to fail.
The District court noted that the “cardinal rule of will construction that the intention of the testator, as expressed in the language used in the will, shall be controlling if it is not inconsistent with the rules of law.” The District court then determined that the statute applied to revoke the spouse’s interest and the devise to the wife’s heirs-at-law was contingent on Mathew and Sara being married.
On appeal, however, the Appellate court determined that “the will unambiguously expresses Mathew’s intent that Sara’s are to receive a devise.”
Michael argued that because the devise is described by the marital status “my wife’s heirs”, that such residuary bequest lapsed. The Appellate court did not agree.
Another interesting argument Michael made was that the District court’s decision preventing his ex spouse’s heirs-at law to inherit “serves the logical objective of precluding families of ex-spouses from collecting a second time from an estate previously divided during marriage dissolution proceedings”. The Appellate court determined that Michael’s interpretation reflected a policy decision that the statute would revoke, not only the spouse’s rights, but also the spouse’s heirs’ rights.The Appellate court determined that while there is “no basis upon which to disagree with Michael’s characterization of such an extension as a ‘logical objective’… only the legislature could add such an extension.”
The statute is unambiguous…ONLY devises to a former spouse are revoked following dissolution of the marriage and the divorce does not revoke other devises. As is clear the legislature could have chosen to revoke devises to relatives of a former spouse but chose not to do so. Thus, Sara’s parents were heirs under Mathew’s will.
ADVICE: The Florida statute also revokes the rights as to ex-spouses but also makes no mention of the relatives of the former spouse. When recently revising this statute, the Real Property Probate and Trust Law Section (“RPPTL”) executive council had a robust argument on this issue and decided to keep the statute limited to former spouses and not to other heirs as a decedent may want to benefit stepchildren, etc. Thus, it is extremely important to review your documents after a divorce and also consider having language in the document whether it applies to beneficiaries or named personal representatives or trustees whether or not a divorce occurs. While this is a delicate matter to discuss, it is better to address this issue at the planning stage rather than have to litigate the testator’s intent.
WORD OF THE WEEK: District court versus appellate court. Each state has its own court system. In the federal courts, a U.S. District Court, witnesses give testimony and a judge or jury decides who is guilty or not guilty — or who is liable or not liable. Federal appellate courts do not retry cases or hear new evidence. They do not hear witnesses testify. There is no jury.
In Minnesota, the situs of this case, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reconsiders decisions of the district courts when one party believes that an error has been made and files an appeal. It also reviews the validity of administrative rules and decisions of the administrative courts under the Administrative Procedure Act.
Florida’s court system consists of the following entities: two appellate level courts (the supreme court and five district courts of appeal) and two trial level courts (20 circuit courts and 67 county courts). The purpose of Florida’s District Courts of Appeal is to provide the opportunity for review of decisions of lower tribunals by multi-judge panels. District Courts of Appeal correct harmful errors and ensure that decisions are consistent with our rights and liberties. An appeal from the District Court of Appeal would be to the Florida Supreme Court.