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Ciani v. MacGrath

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On January 8, 2019, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued its decision in Ciani v. MacGrath, SJC-12531. At issue is 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 the spousal elective share statute. The specific dispute here centered on whether a surviving spouse’s interest in the decedent’s real estate is a life estate or merely a right to the income produced by the real estate based on when the spouse elects to waive the decedent’s will and take a statutorily prescribed share. If the lifetime interest is merely an interest in the income produced by the real estate, the spouse has no standing to pursue a partition action. On the other hand, if it is determined the spouse’s interest is a life estate, then the spouse does have standing to pursue a partition action.

The SJC ultimately ruled the spouse’s lifetime interest in the real estate is a life estate and therefore, she does have standing to pursue a partition action. This would allow the surviving spouse to force a sale of the real estate.

The purpose of the elective share statute is to allow a surviving spouse to prevent himself or herself from being disinherited, whether the disinheritance is by design or by inadvertence. Pursuant to G.L. c. 191, §15, which is the elective share statute, if the decedent is survived by descendants and the surviving spouse elects to take under the statute, the surviving spouse “shall take one third of the personal and one third of the real property” of the decedent. If the amount the spouse would receive exceeds $25,000, a spouse also receives, in addition to the first $25,000, “only the income during his or her life of the excess of his or her share, the personal property held in trust, and the real property vested in him or her for life.” The first $25,000 is satisfied from personal property to the extent available. If personal property is insufficient, the excess is raised by selling or mortgaging real property.

The facts in the case at issue are as follows. The decedent, Raymond Ciani, executed a Will around 2000, while married to his first wife. The Will left property to the first then-wife and his children. The first Wife subsequently died. The decedent did not sign a new Will after the first Wife died. In 2013, he married Susan Ciani. He died in 2015 without having signed a new Will. When Mr. Ciani died, he owned five parcels of land in Charlton, Massachusetts. Mr. Ciani’s daughter, Brenda MacGrath (“Brenda”), petitioned for probate and became Mr. Ciani’s personal representative.

Because Susan was not receiving any property under her husband’s Will, she filed a claim for her statutory elective spousal share, and then later filed a partition action to compel the sale of three parcels of land.

After a series of cross-motions and pretrial discovery, two out of the three parcels were sold. However, the parties remained deadlocked on one parcel of land. Judge Kathleen Sandman in the Worcester Probate and Family Court found that there were no material facts in dispute but denied the motion 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 to the Supreme Judicial Court.

In agreeing with Susan, the court focused on the elective share statute’s language with respect to real property “vested in him or her for life.” The court interpreted this phrase as creating a life estate. According to the court, the legislature intended for a surviving spouse to have an ownership in the real property for life, not merely an interest in the income produced by the property. 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). Because she has a life estate, she has standing to bring a suit for partition, and can therefore force the sale of the real property.

 

Takeaways

The litigation here could have been avoided entirely if Mr. Ciani had updated his estate plan upon his second marriage to Susan. At common law, a marriage (or divorce) automatically revoked a person’s Wills and Codicils. Under the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code in effect since 2012, a marriage (or divorce) does not revoke a person’s Will and Codicils. Mr. Ciani died in 2015 after the adoption of the Massachusetts Uniform Probate Code. Accordingly, his Will executed many years ago, was still in effect. This Will provided for Mr. Ciani’s first wife and his children. Upon the first wife’s death and continuing upon his subsequent marriage to Susan, the old Will (still in effect) would only provide for the children. Susan’s only option to obtain any benefit from her husband’s probate estate was to elect to take under the spousal elective share statute.

Upon Mr. Ciani’s marriage to Susan, an estate planning attorney may have recommended that Mr. Ciani provide for both Susan and his children (from the first marriage) in some equitable manner. It is safe say to say Mr. Ciani intended for both Susan and his children to benefit from his estate. This case is a good lesson: Everyone should review the status of his or her estate plan periodically or at least when major life changes occur. Significant life changes which warrant an estate plan update include but are not limited to marriage, divorce, birth of a child, death of a spouse, and a dramatic change in one’s personal finances.


About the Author

Christopher R. Mitchell is admitted to the Massachusetts bar and concentrates his practice in the areas of estate planning, trust and estate administration, tax planning, and business succession planning.

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