Rights of a Widow, Part II: Renunciation of the Will

August 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

In Part I, we discussed the right of the widow (which also embraces widowers) to one-year’s support from the estate when the spouse has died. In this post we deal with the right of the widow to renounce a will when it does not make adequate provision for her. The right is codified in MCA 91-5-25.

As we saw in Part I, Joe Howard Estes and Sarah (Young) Estes had been married only nine months when Joe Howard died. Sarah had moved out of Joe Howard’s home and back to her own home shortly after he had suffered from some serious health issues, including amputation of his leg and arterial surgery. She filed for divorce, which was pending at the time of Joe Howard’s death.

Joe Howard’s will, which was admitted to probate, made no provision for Sarah at all, so she filed notice of renunciation with the court, which eventually awarded her a child’s share (1/5) of the estate, less $12,000 that she had been granted as a widow’s allowance.

The co-executors appealed, and the COA reversed in Estate of Estes: Estes v. Estes, decided December 11, 2012. Judge Maxwell, writing for the majority, summed it up:

¶17. Mississippi Code Annotated section 91-5-25 (Rev. 2004) allows a widow whose deceased husband “does not make satisfactory provision” for her in his will to renounce the unsatisfactory provision and elect to take the a child’s share of the estate. See also Bolton v. Barnett, 131 Miss. 802, 827, 95 So. 721, 726 (1923) (holding second husband not provided for in his deceased wife’s will was entitled to inherit a child’s share of his wife’s real property). Under section 91-5-27, when the husband’s will makes no provision at all for his widow, no renunciation is required—it will be assumed that the widow has elected to take her share of the estate. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-27. Thus, the chancellor was correct in one sense that the right to inherit under 91-5-27 is “automatic” because, in contrast to the right under section 91-5-25, no act of renunciation or election of a child’s share is required.

¶18. But the chancellor was incorrect that this automatic right to inherit, as if the deceased husband died without a will, arises in every situation without exception. The record shows the chancellor believed his hands were tied regarding Young’s renunciation of Estes’s will and right to inherit one-fifth of the estate. Although acknowledging the evidence supporting Young’s abandonment of the marriage, the chancellor nonetheless awarded her a child’s portion of the estate because he was not aware “of any case law at all that would reflect . . . that [Young] somehow would not be entitled to a child’s portion[.]”

¶19. But there is Mississippi precedent of this nature. Our supreme court has previously acknowledged the operation of estoppel when a spouse trying to take a child’s share of the estate has deserted or abandoned the marriage. In re Marshall’s Will, 243 Miss. at 478, 138 So. 2d at 484 [(1962)]; Walker v. Matthews, 191 Miss. 489, 511-12, 3 So. 2d 820, 826 (1941); Williams v. Johnston, 148 Miss. 634, 636-37, 114 So. 733, 733-34 (1927). In Tillman v. Williams, 403 So. 2d 880, 881 (Miss. 1981), the supreme court clarified what was required for estoppel: “Our Legislature has not seen fit to enact any legislation on this abandonment question. It is, therefore, obvious that the statute has to be strictly construed unless there is a clear desertion and abandonment that sets up the estoppel.”

¶20. While he acknowledged evidence showing Young’s desertion or abandonment of the marriage, the chancellor did not make a finding of clear desertion or abandonment. This was because he mistakenly believed such an estoppel-type finding would have no legal effect on Young’s right to inherit. Since the award of a child’s share of the estate was based on an erroneous application of the law, we reverse the award to Young of one-fifth of the estate and remand for a determination of whether Young’s action met the clear-abandonment standard of Tillman, thus estopping her from inheriting from the Estes’s estate. [Footnotes omitted]

So it is estoppel that will preclude a spouse who has abandoned or deserted the marriage from taking a child’s share. For the estoppel to come into effect the chancellor has to make a finding that “there is a clear desertion and abandonment.”

An interesting sidelight in this appeal is that the appellants did not specifically raise Sarah’s renunciation as an issue in the appeal. How, then, could the COA address it? The COA opinion said this about it at Footnote 5 to ¶16:

While the co-executors did not raise as a separate issue Young’s renunciation of the will, they raised the issue of Young’s abandonment of the marriage and its effect upon Young’s rights, as well as challenged the amount of the award of one-fifth of the estate. Thus, we find the question of the will’s renunciation and Young’s right to inherit a child’s share is before us. But even were it not, reversal based on the chancellor’s misapplication of the law would be warranted under plain-error review. “Plain-error review is properly utilized for ‘correcting obvious instances of injustice or misapplied law.’” Smith v. State, 986 So. 2d 290, 294 (¶10) (Miss. 2008) (quoting City of Newport v. Fact Concerts, Inc., 453 U.S. 247, 256 (1981)); see also M.R.A.P. 28(a)(3) (permitting this court to “notice a plain error not identified or distinctly specified” in the appellants’ statement of issues).

A post that talks about some of the quirks of renunciation can be found at the link.

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You are currently reading Rights of a Widow, Part II: Renunciation of the Will at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.

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