It is common for a married individual to fully provide for a spouse under his or her estate plan and to execute what is called an “I love you” will.” However, it sometimes happens that the married individual does not bequeath property for his/her spouse, often because he or she has children from a previous marriage and wants to leave family property to them. State laws generally do not favor disinheriting a spouse and may allow the surviving spouse to claim a portion of the decedent spouse’s property despite the provisions of the will. Absent a pre- or post-nuptial agreement addressing parties’ interests in each other’s property at death, “Elective Share” statutes can prevent a spouse from being disinherited under the decedent’s estate plan. A recent Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court opinion underscores the importance of elective share statutes when individuals do not provide for a surviving spouse.
What are Elective Share statutes?
Elective share statutes generally allow a surviving spouse who has been disinherited by the deceased spouse to claim a fixed portion of the decedent’s estate (elective share), and in so doing, circumvent the decedent’s wishes. The purpose of elective share statutes is to allow a measure of financial protection to the surviving spouse, saving him or her from destitution.
Each state sets its own rules, and many states provide that the size of the elective share depends upon whether the decedent left issue (i.e., children, grandchildren) or parents. For example, New York allows a surviving spouse to claim the greater of $50,000 or 1/3 of the estate while Illinois allows a surviving spouse to claim 1/2 of the estate if the deceased did not leave issue but only 1/3 if the deceased left issue. In comparison, Massachusetts sets out a complicated matrix that depends on the degree of kinship of the other surviving relatives and the type of property left by the decedent. Some elective share statutes, such as Illinois’s, limit a surviving spouse’s claim to probate property; others, such as that of Massachusetts, include certain non-probate property, such as a decedent’s revocable trust.
Massachusetts’ Elective Share Statute
Where a decedent leaves issue, the Massachusetts elective share statute allows the surviving spouse to claim an interest in 1/3 of the deceased’s personal and real property. To the extent that the value of the 1/3 exceeds $25,000, the electing spouse will receive $25,000 outright and an interest in the remainder of the 1/3 share.
In a case decided in January 2019, Cianci v. MacGrath, SJC-12531 (Mass. Jan. 8, 2019), Massachusetts’ highest court determined the exact nature of the surviving spouse’s interest in that remainder of the 1/3 share. In this case, the decedent’s family consisted of a wife and adult children from an earlier marriage and his property consisted of three parcels of real estate. The case does not mention whether the couple had established a pre- or post-nuptial agreement, which could have determined the parties’ interests in each other’s property at death. The husband’s will made no provision for his wife and his real estate was bequeathed to his children. Not surprisingly, the wife elected against the will and then sought to force the sale of the real estate. Not surprisingly, litigation followed. The ultimate ruling was a toss-up: the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court determined that the wife has a life estate in the real estate subject to the 1/3 share, that she can seek division (partition) of the property to settle her share and that she is entitled to compensation for the value of her interest in any property that had already been sold.
What if you do not wish to fully provide for your spouse under your estate plan?
You should not assume that you can disinherit your spouse. If your estate plan does not provide at least as much for your spouse as your state’s elective share statute provides, your spouse could have a state-sanctioned override. You should consult with your estate planning attorney to determine your options and your spouse’s rights.