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Last June we wrote about a decision of the court of appeals concerning a residuary clause in Mathew Tomczik’s will.   The facts of the case were straight forward:  Mathew and Sara were married in 1992. In 1995 they signed reciprocal wills.  In his will Mathew named Sara as the primary beneficiary of the residue of his estate.  If Sara did not survive Mathew he gave one-half of the residue to his heirs-at-law and one-half “to my wife’s heirs-at law”. The definition section of the will noted that all references to “my wife” are to Sara alone.   

In 2019, Mathew and Sara divorced and their marriage was dissolved by the district court. There is no dispute that the devise to Sara was revoked by operation of the Minnesota Uniform Probate Code which provides that a former spouse who remains named in a will is deemed to have died immediately before the marriage was dissolved. Thus once the marriage was dissolved any devise to Sara was revoked by operation of law.   Mathew died two year later in 2021.  There were no children of Mathew and Sara’s marriage. Mathew did not have any children before his death. Sara is currently living and has no children.  Sara’s heir-at-law are her parents the Calvin and Patricia.

In a 2-1 decision, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that because the language “one-half to my wife’s heirs-at-law” unambiguously expressed Mathew’s intent that Sara’s heirs are to receive a devise, Calvin and Patricia are entitled to one-half of the residue.  The Appeals Court held that because Minnesota Statutes section 524.2-804 subdivision 2 requires the will to be given effect as if the former spouse died immediately before dissolution, the devise to Sara’s heirs (her parents) becomes operative and thus the Calvin and Patricia are entitled to one-half of the residue of the estate.

In an opinion dated July 5, 2023 the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals.  The Supreme Court found that the phrase “my wife’s heirs-at-law” was used to describe members of a group identified by familial ties.  As a result the Court held “The only identifier present in the operative provisions of this will is the marriage-based group “my wife’s heirs-at-law.” Mathew had no wife at the time of his death when his will became operative. Because Mathew had no wife at the time of his death, the class of his “wife’s heirs-at-law” no longer existed, and any gift to them must therefore fail.”  To distribute a share of the decedent’s estate to his ex-spouse’s family would be contrary to the intent demonstrated by the will and surrounding circumstances at the time of execution. Referencing the dissent in the court of appeals decision as support for conclusion of Mathew’s intent the Court noted that if the court of appeals decision were to stand  “Sara’s new husband would be a beneficiary of a portion of Mathew’s residual estate,” which “would undoubtedly be contrary to both the testamentary intent of the decedent and Minn. Stat. § 524.2-804.”  

If your will names your former spouse the will should be reviewed to make certain no unintended consequences are realized. 

Contributed by: Neil Meyer