DOING MUNIMENT OF TITLE RIGHT

January 11, 2012 § 18 Comments

MCA § 91-5-35 allows you to admit a will to probate as a muniment of title only (muniment = evidence or writing that enables one to defend title to an estate or a claim to rights or privileges, according to Webster). It’s an effective procedure where the decdent owned only real property in Mississippi, and especially where the decedent was a resident in another state and owned nothing but realty here.  

The statute enables the beneficiaries to dispense with the formalities of probate and have a judgment recorded that preserves the chain of title.

Your client can take advantage of the statute if the decedent died testate owning real property in Mississippi at the time of death, and the will purports to devise the real property.  

But you have to do it right. Here’s what the statute requires:

  • The petition must be signed and sworn to by all beneficiaries named in the will, and by the spouse if not named in the will.
  • The petition must recite that the value of the decedent’s personal estate in Mississippi at the time of death, exclusive of any interest in real property, was less than $10,000, not including exempt property.
  • The petition must recite that all of the known debts of the decedent and estate have been paid, if any, including any estate and income taxes.
  • Any beneficiary under a legal disability must sign the petition by legal guardian or parent. 
  • Since the petition is sworn, and since the statute lays down specific requirements, it is a good idea to include all of the statutory prerequisites (e.g., that the decedent died owning real property in the state of Mississippi, that no estate or income taxes are due, etc.), and to track the language of the statute verbatim. If I were doing it, I would simply draft my petition tracking the statute phrase for phrase.

I have seen lawyers come to grief over their petitions simply because they got creative. One tried to argue with me that this sentence was enough to qualify under the statute: “The only property the decedent owned at the time of death is the real property described herein.” That’s not good enough, in my opinion, because there must be shown in the petition that “The value of the decedent’s personal estate in the state of Mississippi at the time of his or her death, exclusive of any interest in real property, did not exceed … etc.”). Again: I suggest that you simply track verbatim the language of the statute as far as you can.

I have never had to present live testimony beyond the sworn petition to obtain a judgment under the statute, and I do not require it; however, I have heard that some chancellors do require testimony, so you need to find out how your chancellor does it before you set aside time to present your petition.

The statute specifically provides that the procedure does not deprive any interested party of the right to a formal administration of the estate, or to file a will contest. Thus, probate as a muniment is not an effective, shorthand substitute for actual probate of a will. 

Where to file? That should be governed by MCA § 91-7-3.

Caveat: Do not include language in your judgment that adjudicates ownership, heirship or anything of the sort. An adjudication that the petitioners are all of the named beneficiaries in the will, and that the property is admitted to probate as a muniment of title only is all that the statute contemplates.

A MILITARY LIFE INSURANCE POTHOLE

December 10, 2010 § 2 Comments

You have tried your divorce case to a conclusion and your client, the wife, is awarded custody and statutory child support.  The husband, an active-duty member of the Navy, is ordered to maintain his  Serviceman’s Group Life Insurance (SGLI) policy for benefit of the minor child.  It would appear that everything is peachy-keen.  Your client is on cruise control, right? 

Not so fast, my friend.  Your client’s limo is headed for a major pothole.  Consider the following:  

Richard and April Ridgway were divorced in 1977 in the State of Maine.  They had three children at the time.

In the divorce judgment, the trial court ordered Richard to maintain his SGLI policy in the face amount of $20,000 with April as beneficiary for benefit of the three minor children. 

Richard later married Donna and changed the designation of the beneficiary to provide that the proceeds would be paid as specified “by law,” which under federal law means that it would be paid to his widow, who would be Donna.  Richard died and both April and Donna filed claims to the proceeds.

April filed suit in Maine courts seeking imposition of a constructive trust for benefit of her children.  Donna joined the suit seeking payment to herself based on the designation of beneficiary by Richard.

The case wended its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and in Ridgway v. Ridgway, 454 US 46 (1981), that court held that due to the supremacy clause, a state court ruling must yield to federal law that gives a serviceman the unfettered right to designate his own SGLI beneficiary, and for such policies to be exempt from attachment, execution and other process for collection.

What all this means is that the state trial court judge’s rulings vis a vis the SGLI is essentially meaningless. 

So what can you do?  One solution may be to ask the court to take judicial notice of the Ridgway decision (and provide the judge a copy), and have your client testify that she insists that the husband obtain and maintain a private policy of life insurance with the children as sole named beneficiary.  If you put all your client’s eggs in the SGLI basket, she may find it empty when egg-gathering time arrives.  And she just might look to you to make things right. 

Thanks to attorney Bill Jacob for this.  I have not researched this issue for later authority, but Bill tells me it is good law.

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