“Spousal disinheritance” refers to a person’s ability to draft a will which leaves nothing to the spouse upon death. Massachusetts does not completely recognize this doctrine. That is to say, a person cannot entirely disinherit his or her spouse, whether by design or inadvertently. One way that the Commonwealth has ensured this is through its adoption of a spousal elective share statute. This is found in Massachusetts General Laws chapter 191, section 15.

Case of Ciani v. MacGrath

That elective share statute was at the center of controversy in a recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The case of Ciani v. MacGrath involved a claim by a widow who elected her spousal statutory share of her husband’s estate after he passed away. His wife and four adult children from a previous marriage survived the decedent. The husband made no provisions for his wife in his will.

After claiming her spousal statutory share, the wife also filed three separate actions for partition. She sought to force the sale of three separate pieces of real estate her husband owned at his death. As justification, the wife argued that the elective share statute provided her with a life estate in an undivided one-third of each property. Further, she argued any interest the children may have owned in the properties was subject to her respective life estates.

Life Estate

As the name suggests, a life estate is an interest in real estate; it allows the holder of the life estate to live on and enjoy the property for the life’s duration. The relevant portion of the statute in question provides that a surviving spouse is entitled to one-third of the decedent’s real and personal property, but “if he or she would thus take real and personal property to an amount exceeding [$25,000] in value, he or she shall receive, in addition to that amount, only the income during his or her life of the excess of his or her share of such estate above that amount, the personal property to be held in trust and the real property vested in him or her for life.”

Dispute

The husband’s children opposed the wife’s action. First, they looked at the extent Susan’s shares of Raymond’s property exceeded $25,000. They claimed § 15 reduced her interest in the real property from an outright ownership interest to an interest in the income produced by the property for her life. The children interpreted the statute as giving the surviving spouse a right to the income generated by the trust. A trust holds the personal property. Additionally, they interpreted it as giving a right to the income generated by the real property. The surviving spouse has this for life.

In other words, the parties’ dispute in the case centered around whether the statute gave the wife an outright interest in a life estate – following her outright interest in the first $25,000 of the husband’s property – or merely an interest in the income from that life estate. The difference comes down not only to the value of the property; it also comes down to the type of interest given to the surviving spouse as a matter of law.

Outcome

The high court looked to the intent of the Massachusetts Legislature in enacting section 15.

“[A]ffording the surviving spouse a life estate is consistent with the cause of § 15’s enactment and the main object to be accomplished,” the Supreme Judicial Court noted. “A life estate is a well-established real property ownership interest with clearly defined rights and obligations, as well as an ascertainable value.  The income interest suggested by the children is not an ownership interest at all… Indeed, it would be inconsistent to prevent one spouse from disinheriting the other as a matter of public policy but allow the offending spouse’s heirs to do what he or she could not.”

The wife in this case had entitlement to a life estate. Thus, according to the high court, she and the children were tenants in common. So, she did have entitlement to partition.

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