Minnesota Supreme Court holds clause in will leaving half of decedent’s estate to “wife’s heirs” did not apply to parents of the decedent’s ex-wife
The Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled a clause purporting to leave one half of a husband’s estate to his “wife’s heirs” did not apply to his ex-wife’s parents. In In the matter of the Estate of Mathew Joseph Tomczik, the decedent and his wife had no children and divorced in 2019. Because the husband did not amend his will before he died, a provision remained in his will that purported to leave half of his estate to his “wife’s heirs,” even though, at the time of his death, he had no wife. The husband’s personal representative recognized his siblings as the only heirs, and the ex-wife’s parents objected, claiming they were entitled to half of the estate based on the language of the will.
The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the personal representative holding that a devise to the decedent’s “wife’s heirs” was void because the decedent had no wife, and thus the devise failed a matter of law. The court of appeals reversed and concluded the will unambiguously devised half of the estate to the ex-wife’s heirs.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed, reaffirming the cardinal rule of construction to preserve the intention of the testator. After a divorce, any disposition to a former spouse is revoked.
The court reasoned that the decedent did not legally have a wife at the time of his death, and therefore his “wife’s heirs” was a class that no longer existed. Of note, the decedent identified the class by the familial relationship, not as individuals. The court determined the reasonable inference is that because they were defined in terms of their familial relation, if that familial relation no longer existed, the decedent would not want them to inherit. The court further reasoned it would be quite unreasonable to conclude the legislature intended for devises to a former spouse to be revoked, while at the same time allowing devises to the relatives of a former spouse to stand.
The case tells a cautionary tale, nonetheless, that estate documents should be periodically updated, especially after significant changes in life circumstances. Please contact Darin Haugen from our office for any questions regarding wills, estates, and trusts.
In the matter of the Estate of Mathew Joseph Tomczik. Matter of Est. of Tomczik, No. A21-1420, 2023 WL 4340196 (Minn. July 5, 2023).