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Court of Appeals limits effect of statute severing gifts to a former spouse. Review your estate plan now.

On Behalf of | May 24, 2022 | Family Law & Divorce

A divorce does not automatically sever provisions of a will leaving assets to an ex-spouse’s heirs according to the Minnesota Court of Appeals decision issued yesterday in the Estate of Mathew Joseph Tomczik, A21-1420 (May 23, 2022).

In Tomczik, the deceased, Mathew Tomczik, was married to Sara in 1992. Neither Mathew or Sara had children during their lifetime. Mathew executed a will in 1995. In 2019 Mathew and Sara divorced. Mathew did not change his 1995 will after the divorce and he died in January 2021. Sara is still alive.

Sara was the primary beneficiary of Mathew’s 1995 will. Under Minnesota Law, if a will is executed during a divorce, Minnesota Statute § 524.2-804 requires the courts to treat a former spouse as if they died immediately before the divorce, thereby removing them as a beneficiary of their former spouse’s will. However, Mathew’s will specified that in the event Sara died before him, one-half of his estate was to go to Mathew’s heirs-at-law, and one-half to Sara’s heirs-at-law.

Mathew’s brother Michael filed a petition for probate of Mathew’s will. This is a request that the Court appoint a personal representative of the estate to carry out the express terms of a will. The petition identified Sara as having no legal interest in Mathew’s estate and made no provision for Sara’s heirs. Sara’s parents (her heirs-at-law) filed an objection to the petition on the grounds they were wrongfully omitted as individuals receiving inheritance from the will. The district court found that Sara’s heirs were properly omitted according to the controlling statute, § 524.2-804.

Sara’s parents appealed. In a split decision, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court. The Court of Appeals found that the Mathew’s will unambiguously expressed an intent to make a provision for Sara’s heirs-at-law. While Minn. Stat. § 524.2-804 states that a divorce revokes any disposition to the former spouse if the will was created before the divorce occurred, Subdivision 2 states that the provisions of the will should “given effect as if the former spouse died immediately before the dissolution or annulment.” The Court treated Sara as if she had died before Mathew, causing Mathew’s alternate provision specifically addressing the event of her death before his to go into effect, and that Section 524.2-804 did not preclude the express distribution to Sara’s heirs-at-law.

Critical to the Court’s decision was a 1990 amendment to the Uniform Probate Code (UPC). Uniform Codes are put together by national panels as an example to states of how their laws should be worded in order to promote consistency across all states. The UPC was drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws and adopted by the Minnesota legislature in 1975. The UPC’s 1990 amendment expanded the “former spouse revocation to include any devise to a relative of the divorced individual’s former spouse.” Unfortunately, the Minnesota Legislature did not adopt this 1990 amendment in the Minnesota Probate Code. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals found that the Minnesota statute, as written, did not prevent Sara’s heirs receiving inheritance under Mathew’s will.

There was a dissenting opinion issued by one of the Court of Appeals judges. The dissent adopted the reasoning of the majority regarding §524.2-804, but found that because Sara is still alive she does not in fact have heirs by operation of the law and, therefore, there were no heirs of hers to inherit the alternate gift.

This case illustrates why is it important to review your estate plan following a divorce despite any laws acting to sever gifts to a former spouse. Many individuals have alternate provisions  regarding their spouse dying first that could be put into effect by this new interpretation of the law. While this case may yet be reviewed by the Minnesota Supreme Court, we don’t want our clients to leave anything to chance. Rest assured we will be keeping an eye on the law – we want you to be secure that your last will and testament will be executed to your full intent. Please contact our office today if you were not represented by our attorneys during your divorce. We would be happy to review your file and provide counsel on any loose ends that may exist, including but not limited to issues with the division of retirement accounts, transfer real estate, child support modification, and post-decree custody and parenting time.