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Estate Planning Blog

Estate Planning Blog

Guest Blog Post: Supreme Judicial Court to Hear Spousal Share Case

T FRANK LAW's Estate Planning Blog is proud to have Attorney Joseph N. Schneiderman guest blog on tomorrow's oral arguments before the Supreme Judicial Court in Ciani v. MacGrath, SJC-12531, involving whether a surviving spouse has standing to petition for the partition of real estate when his or her sole interest in the property originates from G. L. c. 191, § 15 (spouse’s elective share).

Tomorrow, September 6, 2018, the Supreme Judicial Court will hear Ciani v. MacGrath, SJC-12531, involving whether a surviving spouse has standing to pursue partitions of real estate by virtue of being the surviving spouse and having an elective share in the estate.

The facts are fairly straightforward: The decedent, Raymond Ciani, drafted a will, while married, leaving property to his children and his then-wife, who subsequently died. In 2013, he remarried, this time to Susan (the plaintiff), but he did not alter his will. He died two years later in 2015. When Mr. Ciani died, he owned five parcels of land in Charlton, Massachusetts. Mr. Ciani’s daughter, Brenda McGrath ("Brenda"), petitioned for informal probate and to become Mr. Ciani’s personal representative, pursuant to the terms of the will.

Susan filed a claim for her statutory elective spousal share-and later filed a partition action to compel the sale of three parcels of land. Brenda filed an answer and counterclaims, including for waste, and eventually moved for partial summary judgment. Susan cross-moved for summary judgment and Brenda later sold two of the parcels of land at issue in this case-the third remains the subject of a partition action. A judge sitting in the Worcester Probate and Family Court found that there were no material facts in dispute but denied the motion without prejudice because there were no cases interpreting the spousal share statute. The judge reported the case to the Appeals Court, and Brenda successfully applied for direct appellate review.

Before addressing the briefs, let’s review two issues of procedure and substance:

First, procedurally, Probate Court judges, like other Trial Court judges, enjoy discretionary authority to report questions of law to the Appeals Court in two instances. First, a judge may report a case that is otherwise undecided for a final decision on questions of law to the Appeals Court. Second, if there is some interlocutory (i.e. non-final) ruling that “so affects the merits of the controversy” that the Appeals Court should immediately address it, the judge may report that ruling. G.L. c. 215, §13, Mass. R. Dom. Rel. Pro. 64. See also G.L. c. 231, §111, Mass. R. Civ. Pro. 64. Once the Appeals Court enters a case on its docket, any party may apply to the Supreme Judicial Court for direct appellate review, if there are public or novel questions of law-and bypass the Appeals Court. See G.L. c. 211A, §10, Mass. R.A.P. 11.

In this case, the Probate Court judge reported three questions of law:

1.  Whether a surviving spouse has standing to file a petition for partition of real estate, when her sole interest in the subject property originates from M.G.L. c. 191, §15 (spouse's elective share)?

2. What benefits and or/obligations does the phrase “vested for him or her for life” as contained in G.L. c. 191, §15 confer? Specifically, is a one-third life estate in the real estate created in favor of the surviving spouse; and does the surviving spouse have a duty to contribute to the expenses of real estate during her lifetime?

3. Upon the sale of real estate of which the surviving spouse holds an interest pursuant to G.L. c. 191, §15, what portion of the proceeds, if any, should be distributed to her free from trust? 

Second, what is the spousal share or elective share? Pursuant to G.L. c. 191, §15, a surviving spouse “shall take one third of the personal and one third of the real property” of the decedent, if the decedent left issue-children. If the amount exceeds $25,000, a spouse also receives, in addition to $25,000, personal property held in trust, the real property vested in him or her for life. The elective share operates to avoid one spouse disinheriting another.

The briefs in this case distill to a battle of rules interpreting statutes.

Regarding the first reported question, Susan contends that the elective share statute automatically vests in her by law. Specifically, the statute distinguished between personal property (otherwise held in trust) and real property (which vests for life.) Thus, construing the statute as a whole, Susan has a life estate in any real property (like the parcel at Charlton).

By contrast, Brenda claims that Susan has overlooked the phrases “income during his or her life” and “excess” in the statute-and the elective share only ripens when the costs of administering the estate conclude. Thus, her contentions are not sound because those phrases would become superfluous-an interpretation courts avoid.

Moreover, Brenda argues that partitions are only available when tenants in common cannot effectively divide land to their advantage. Nothing in the record suggests that this is so. To permit Susan to “[liquidate] the estate” would be irrational and absurd because it would thwart the inheritance of Brenda and the other children. This is also a result courts avoid.

The first question of the case may be dispositive. If Susan has no standing to seek partition, the rest of the case cannot proceed-standing, or the suffering of a legally cognizable harm directly attributable to Brenda or the estate.

Regarding the other two questions, Susan contends that the plain language of the statute gives her a one-third life estate interest-not subject to trust or other encumbrance. Accordingly, Susan pays one-third of the expense for upkeep of property.

Brenda contends that Susan is, again, reading the statute in an incomplete manner. Specifically, Susan’s interest is only vested in the income of the excess of her share during her lifetime. If Susan is only to receive income, she only obtains income generated after the share of $25,000.

Regarding the final question, Susan argues that she should receive $25,000 in personal property and one-third of real property in excess of $25,000-vested in her-and only personal property is held in trust. Susan further argues that the elective share statute is clear and and based on the old and repealed concepts of dower and curtesy-and the distinctions between real and personal property should have meaning. Finally, Susan emphasizes the tax consequences should favor her interpretation.

Brenda replies that the statute has historically been considered to only permit a $25,000 payout rather than any larger lump sum –consistent with how the statute supersedes dower and curtesy-or one third of all land owned at death. Thus, any income should not be payble to her but should be held in trust. Brenda further contends that Susan is responsible for the costs because she holds a life estate because a life tenant must pay taxes and failing to do so is waste.

Although the SJC solicited amicus curiae briefs (friends of the court, i.e., organizations or others interested in the case), none have been filed as of yet. Both points are also compelling-i.e., the law has constantly disfavored disinheriting surviving spouses-but courts also cannot perform surgery on or rewrite statutes And, as earlier, the first question of whether or not Susan has standing may be dispositive.  As is their typical practice, the SJC will strike a balance between these competing ideals.

Attorney Joe Schneiderman has an appellate practice in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and has argued three times in the SJC and written amicus briefs in six cases. He can be contacted at connlawjoe@gmail.com.