Supreme Judicial Court: Spousal Share Statute Does Create Standing To Partition Property By Joseph N. Schneiderman
On January 8, 2019, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (SJC) decided Ciani v. McGrath, SJC-12531, 481 Mass.---(Slip Opinion attached here.) The Court held that if a surviving spouse’s share of an estate is greater than $25,000, a spouse has a life estate in any real property they inherit-and in turn may commence a legal action to partition that property.
A past blog has recounted the facts and posture of this case. In short: Raymond Ciani was predeceased by his first wife and later died with a will-but did not name his current wife, Susan, in that will. Susan claimed her statutory elective share and then sued Raymond’s children to partition land in Charlton. A Judge of the Probate and Family Court denied cross-motions for summary judgment and reported the case to the Appeals Court, and the SJC granted direct appellate review.
Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Elspeth Cypher recalled that since the issue was solely one of statutory interpretation, one party (or the other) deserved judgment as a matter of law. Indeed, the parties agreed that the spousal share statute (G.L. c.191, §15) entitled Susan to $25,000 outright and that she had a one-third interest in Raymond’s real and personal property. The dispute centered on the scope of Susan’s interest in the real property-and the meaning of the spousal share statute.
The SJC recalled their established principles of statutory interpretation. First, the SJC discerned the intent of the Legislature from all the statute’s language and the ordinary usage of that language, and the issue the statute sought to resolve. Plain and unambiguous language was conclusive of legislative intent-and absent such language, the Court considered extrinsic sources, like legislative history. Second, the SJC would not adopt a literal interpretation that would cause absurd results-an interpretation needed to resonate in sound reason and common sense.
General Laws Chapter 191, Section 15 provides that a surviving spouse inherited:
one third of the personal…and…real property [when the decedent died with issue, i.e., children],
except [when the spouse] would take real and personal property…exceeding [$25,000] in value, he
or 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.
The $25,000 threshold “absolutely shall be paid out of…personal property [and if insufficient, was payable] from the sale or mortgage…of real property in which he is she is interested…”
The Court rejected the children’s proposal that Susan only had the right to income from any real property in a trust. First, such an interpretation would make the phrase “vested…for life” superfluous and ineffective in the statute. The specific use of the phrase “vested for life” as to real property was specific and significant.
Second and relatedly, such an interpretation collided with the command that the estate could sell real property to establish the elective share if the personal property did not amount to $25,000. The children’s proposed interpretation would make the statute internally inconsistent. Thus, the phrase “vested…for life” created a life estate and ownership interest in real property-consistent with the plain meaning of “vest” (to confer property ownership) and how the “for life” created a life estate.
The SJC also noted that life estates tended to be created by law and “the Legislature [was] not unfamiliar with life estates, their unique characteristics, and the words which are commonly used to convey them.” Indeed, recognizing a life estate fostered internal consistency in Section 15.
Moreover, holding otherwise would leave a surviving spouse without an interest in property they inherited-thwarting the fundamental purpose of the spousal share statute to avoid disinheriting a spouse. This interpretation also followed the history of Section 15 that consistently expanded a surviving spouse (typically, a widow’s) right to the deceased spouse’s property.
Specifically, since 1783, a widow could claim a dower-or part of her husband’s real property. By 1854, a widow could claim personal property as well, or up to $10,000 out of the husband’s estate. In 1861, the Legislature placed personal property in trust. By 1900, a widow could claim personal and real property in effectively the same as they could today-the $25,000 figure arose in 1964. Recognizing a life estate fulfilled the consistent history of distinguishing real and personal property for purposes of inheritance and expanding inheritance.
Thus, Section 15 created a life estate in real property if the total value of the real and personal property exceeded $25,000 and the spouse took that $25,000 absolutely. Because Susan had a life estate, she had standing to partition the property as a tenant in common with Raymond’s children-as well to receive compensation for any property already sold. Susan also had the responsibilities attendant to such an estate-including not to create waste and to contribute to keeping up the property.
As anticipated in the preview, the SJC has struck a thoughtful balance. The spousal share statute has consistently sought to avoid disinheritance of a spouse and expanded their rights to the estate. The SJC has fulfilled and accomplished that purpose by granting spouses meaningful rights via a life estate. At the same time, a surviving spouse still must fulfill all obligations relative to their property-including not to commit waste-and if they fail to do so, inheriting children have recourse against the spouse. Moreover, partitions, as the SJC noted, typically result in the division of property. Only if the parties disagree may a judge compel a set off or an auction sale. Footnote 13.
At the same time, the SJC also has opened the door to modernizing how much a spouse takes by spousal share. In a footnote, the Court noted that the statute was “unwieldly” and obsolete in light of “modern notions of marital property”-and discriminatory on account of gender. See Footnote 12. The SJC has now expressly recognized that a spouse now has an effective ownership interest in real property they inherit-including to sue for partition and seek its sale. Indeed, although the $25,000 outright share seems paltry today, a spouse now may supplement it by partitioning and selling property.
Admittedly, such litigation can be time consuming and difficult. But the spouse now has that option-consistent with how the statute absolutely wants to avoid disinheriting them. Depending on how much property is at stake, the $25,000 number could increase substantially-and indeed, if property is not sold, the spouse receives income. Indeed, Susan herself will likely receive a portion of the properties in Charlton that have already been sold. Ideally, the Legislature will indeed update the spousal share statute and increase the $25,000 threshold so that spouses will be able to see income rather than partition and sell. But, until that happens, spouses now have the ability to sue and sell property they inherit.
Attorney Joe Schneiderman has an appellate practice in Massachusetts and Connecticut and just argued his fourth (4th!) case in the SJC. Joe gratefully thanks Tim for the opportunity to write about the SJC (which inspired him to practice law at all!) and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.