“Relying on a decades-old inheritance law, the state’s highest court has ruled that spouses are entitled to one-third of their deceased spouse’s estate—when they are not mentioned in the spouse’s will.”
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently unanimously ruled for the second wife of a man who demanded her share of the real estate her husband had willed to his four adult children. The Boston Globe reports in the article “SJC says spouses are entitled to part of significant other’s estate when they are left out of will” that the ruling written by Justice Elspeth B. Cypher says that widow Susan Ciani was protected by the law and has the right to cancel out the estate plan her husband approved before he died. The court held that the law was clear that “the Legislature intended for the surviving spouse to have an ownership interest in the real property for life, not merely an interest in the income produced by the real property.”
The husband, Raymond Ciani, created a will in 2000 that left his estate to his first wife, Mary. Under the will, after her death, his four children were to be sole beneficiaries of the estate, which was worth an estimated $675,000. But Mary died before her husband. Raymond then married Susan in 2013 and died in 2015 without changing his will.
After her husband’s death, Susan challenged the will in court and remained in the family home. Both Susan and the children went into Probate and Family Court and agreed to sell the family home and other assets, while judges decide who gets what.
The attorney for the four children, Maria L. Remillard, said the Court has created what could become a legal problem for blended families, because the law is obscure.
“It’s a rude awakening for a lot of people,’’ Remillard said of the law and the SJC’s endorsement of it. “It isn’t until someone passes away that the parties and surviving spouses realize the impact . . . After a second marriage, the second spouse could, in fact, totally disrupt the estate plan.”
The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allows Susan to get one-third of the value of her husband’s real estate holdings and a similar share in the estate. If both sides had not agreed to sell the family home, Susan also would have been allowed to live there for the rest of her life.
Some states adhere to community property laws that permit a spouse to keep half ownership of all property in a marriage. However, Massachusetts follows an elective share law to protect spouses against disinheritance.
The decision emphasizes the importance of keeping your estate plan up to date, especially if you have remarried.
Reference: The Boston Globe (January 8, 2019) “SJC says spouses are entitled to part of significant other’s estate when they are left out of will”