In most instances, when a person dies while legally married, the surviving spouse of that person is entitled to certain rights and protections regarding spousal inheritance (i.e. inheriting the property of the deceased). In a recent case, the Massachusetts Appeals Court decided a matter involving spousal inheritance. Specifically, the case involved the distribution of a husband’s personal property. This case also involved a prenuptial agreement between husband and wife.
Case Law: In the Matter of the Estate of David E. Stacy
In the case, In the Matter of the Estate of David E. Stacy, the husband died in 2014. The husband’s wife of six years and a son from a previous marriage survived him. His sister and both his biological and adoptive mothers also survived him. The husband had executed his last will in 2003. He nominated his sister as his executor. In his will, the husband left all of his property to a trust. This trust was created in 2001. The biological mother was the sole beneficiary of that trust. Both the will and the trust expressly excluded the husband’s son, adoptive mother, and former wife. Neither the will nor the trust mentioned the current wife.
The lawsuit here involved several claims. The wife sued for her statutory share of the husband’s estate. Meanwhile, the sister, as executor, sued to recover certain property. The sister claimed the wife had that property in her possession. She further claimed the wife had to return the property to the estate.
In 2008, the husband and wife executed a prenuptial agreement before their wedding. A prenuptial agreement (also called an antenuptial agreement) is a written contract between two people who are about to marry. It sets out terms regarding division of property if the spouses divorce. It also sets out any provisions for alimony and any other financial considerations.
In the 2008 prenuptial agreement, the husband declared his property. This is customary with these agreements. He mentioned in the agreement just one particular trust. The husband’s adoptive mother had established that trust and named him as the beneficiary. She did this before the husband made the 2001 trust. Part of the litigation centered around this trust because the trust did not make clear what would happen if the husband died before his adoptive mother.
The trial judge in the case declared the prenuptial agreement null and void upon the husband’s death. The judge held that the prenuptial agreement had no applicability to the husband’s estate. He ordered the wife to return certain property to the estate. If the wife failed to do so, the judge ordered that the sister could deduct the value of the property from the wife’s share of the estate.
On appeal, the wife claimed that the prenuptial agreement’s provisions for waiving her rights to the husband’s property applied only in the case of a divorce, not his death. The Appeals Court disagreed. “Even if the possibility of divorce was the guiding force behind the premarital agreement, the parties, with the advice of counsel, chose to permanently waive any interest in one another’s identified property throughout the marriage and afterwards without condition ‘as if no marriage had been consummated between them,” the court held. “Moreover, the wife waived any future claim to the decedent’s separate property ‘based upon their marriage.’ Nothing in the agreement suggests that the wife’s waiver terminated upon the death of her spouse. To now claim an intestate share in those assets through the decedent’s estate is in contravention of the premarital agreement.”
The Appeals Court then reviewed the proper standard by which the wife’s share of the estate should be calculated. It held that the formula to be used was the spousal statutory share formula—because she was not a beneficiary in the husband’s will, her share of the husband’s estate would be calculated as if he had died without a will. The wife was to receive the first $100,000 plus 1/2 of any balance of the intestate estate.
The Appeals Court disagreed with the wife on her claim that she was entitled to the proceeds of the trust. “There simply is nothing in the statute that suggests that the way the decedent treated his descendants in his will alters the statutory calculation of a spouse’s intestate share, and nothing in the settlement agreement suggests that the parties agreed that the wife is entitled to all the remaining assets of the estate.”
If you have questions about spousal inheritance or other family law issues, contact us. You may schedule a free consultation (click here) with our experienced attorneys at Turco Legal. If you prefer to schedule a consultation by phone, call (866) 995-6663. We will respond to your phone call promptly.