Abandonment of the Marriage Redux

June 27, 2017 § 1 Comment

When a widow renounces a will that does not make provision for her or makes inadequate provision, the will proponent may assert abandonment or desertion of the marriage as a defense to the renunciation.

That is what happened in the case of Estes and Estes, Co-Executors of the Estate of Estes v. Estes. I previously posted about the case, in which the COA reversed the ruling of the chancellor that Sarah Estes had not abandoned or deserted her dying husband so as to bar her from renunciation. You can read my take on the case at this link. I made this statement in that post:

What bothers me somewhat here is that our law allows the chancellor, and the chancellor alone, to choose whom to believe and what weight to give testimony. Here, the facts were in dispute, and the chancellor gave more weight to Sarah’s side of the story, as was his prerogative.

Sarah filed a petition for cert, which the MSSC granted. In Estes and Estes, Co-Executors of the Estate of Estes v. Esteshanded down June 1, 2017, the MSSC reversed the COA, affirmed the chancellor, and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with the court’s ruling. Chief Justice Waller wrote for a unanimous court, Maxwell not participating:

¶10. The standard of review on “findings of fact by a trial judge without a jury [is] manifest error, including whether the findings were the product of prejudice, bias, or fraud, or manifestly against the weight of the credible evidence.” Hale v. State Democratic Exec. Comm., 168 So. 3d 946, 951 (Miss. 2015) (quoting Young v. Stevens, 968 So. 2d 1260, 1263 (Miss. 2007)). This standard of review precludes the “scouring [of] every record before the Court for any and all information which might contradict a . . . court’s factual finding” since this would “amount to an inspection for errors that are far less conspicuous than those that are ‘unmistakable, clear, plain, or indisputable.’”Id. (quoting Black’s Law Dictionary 963
(6th ed. 1990)).

¶11. The Court of Appeals in Estes I directed the chancellor, on remand, to consider the “clear-abandonment standard” of Tillman v. Williams, 403 So. 2d 880 (Miss. 1981). Following the trial, the chancellor addressed the issue of clear desertion, finding that Estes had failed to meet the burden of proof. The following was included in the chancellor’s factual findings and judgment:

Critical to a determination of Sarah’s clear desertion and abandonment of the marriage and resultant estoppel from claiming a statutory right to an inheritance are the facts following Joe’s October hospitalization. According to Sarah, after Joe was discharged from the hospital, he began to act irrationally. He accused her of infidelity and the theft of groceries. On November 26, 2006, Sarah called Joe’s physician, Dr. Pinson, to seek advice on how to help Joe. Sarah then filed a complaint with the Lee County Sheriff’s Department that Joe was threatening her and acting irrationally. A deputy sheriff came to Joe’s residence and made a report. Joe’s irrational behavior is born [sic] out by his refusal to dress appropriately and by him discharging a gun from inside his house through an open window. The severity of Joe’s mental difficulties is perhaps best documented, however, by his tragic May 18, 2007 suicide.

Regardless of the date of separation, the chronology of events following the parties’ separation is not disputed. On January 30, 2007, Sarah files a commitment proceeding against Joe. She attaches a copy of the previously mentioned Sheriff’s report. The two examining physicians fail to find Joe a danger to himself or other[s], i.e., not in need of involuntary commitment. On February 2, 2007, Joe seeks a restraining order against Sarah. Sarah counters on March 7, 2007, by filing for divorce. Joe answers and files a Counter-Complaint on March 27, 2007. On March 26, 2007, the parties agree to a mutual restraining order. On March 29, 2007, a temporary order is entered directing Joe to allow Sarah to retrieve her personal property. Guided by the applicable law and applying that law to the facts and having observed the witnesses, the Court is of the opinion that those urging an estoppel have failed to prove that estoppel.

While the facts exist which show a non-traditional marriage, Joe knew when the parties married that Sarah had, on a daily basis, the responsibilities of attending to her grandchildren. Moreover, Joe’s behavior was at times bizarre and the Court cannot say that Sarah willfully left and had the intention of permanently separating from the marital relationship. Mere absence from home, without more, does not show willfulness.

The court would note that Sarah’s consultation with Dr. Pinson on November 26, 2006, creates an inference that Sarah was trying to get Joe help. Moreover, seeking to have Joe committed, on January 30, 2007, rather than filing for divorce is suggestive to the Court that Sarah was trying to get Joe help and that the marriage was not over. Efforts by a spouse to get a spouse professional help should not be used against that spouse. Finally, the Court notes that Joe filed a Petition to restrain Sarah on February 2, 2007, which may well have caused Sarah to seek a divorce almost a month later. (Citations omitted).

¶12. The Court of Appeals listed the following facts it found in “conflict” with the chancellor’s findings:

(1) Estes becomes ill; (2) Young slowly reduces the amount of time spent with Estes; (3) Young attempts to involuntarily commit Estes; (4) Estes seeks a restraining order against Young upon release from the commitment proceedings; (5) Young files for divorce and restraining orders; (6) Estes counterfiles for divorce; and, (7) Estes takes his own life after receipt of notice for a final hearing on the divorce proceedings.

Estes v. Estes (Estes II), 2016 WL 1564404, *4 (Miss. Ct. App. Apr. 19, 2016). The Court of Appeals then stated the “most glaring evidence of Young’s abandonment of the marriage was her petition for divorce,” citing Tillman as primary legal support. Id.

¶13. However, the Tillman case actually used the language “secure a divorce.” Tillman, 403 So. 2d at 881. In Tillman, this Court reversed the trial court’s judgment, finding that “[a] thorough review of the record reveals that not only was an abandonment uncertain, but there just was not any substantial evidence to show a desertion or abandonment.” Tillman, 403 So. 2d at 882. In fact, Tillman holds that the requirement for clear proof of abandonment must be strictly construed:

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. In Walker, the surviving wife had engaged in a marriage ceremony with another man, and her deceased husband also had married another. There was a clear abandonment of the marriage relationship. Id. (citing Walker v. Matthews, 191 Miss. 489, 3 So. 2d 820 (1941)).

¶14. In Rowell v. Rowell, the Court also focused on the legal status change and determined that the trial court had erred when it had found that the widow’s adulterous relationship was grounds to show abandonment or desertion. Rowell v. Rowell, 251 Miss. 472, 170 So. 2d 267, 271-72 (1964). Relying on an Alabama case, the Court stated, “[a]s long as the marriage relation continued in law, the rights of the wife continued under the [descent and distribution] statute.” Id. at 270 (citing Nolan v. Doss, 133 Ala. 259, 261-62, 31 So. 969, 969-70 (1902)). The Rowell Court found that an adulterous relationship was not sufficient evidence of abandonment or desertion and that no evidence was presented that showed a bigamous marriage, which may have been grounds for abandonment. Id. at 271. The Court again focused on the legal change that occurs when someone remarries. Williams v. Johnson, 148 Miss. 634, 114 So. 733 (1927) (finding that the adulterous conduct was not at issue but only
whether a bigamous marriage resulted).

¶15. Following the renunciation of a will that fails to include the spouse, the will proponent may raise abandonment and desertion as estoppel to the renunciation. Rowell, 251 Miss. at 477-78, 170 So. 2d at 268. Mississippi Code Section 91-5-25 allows the surviving spouse automatically to renounce the will, thus the burden to show evidence of clear abandonment or desertion is on the aggrieved party. Miss. Code Ann. § 91-5-25 (Rev. 2013).

¶16. As this case is close factually and there was no legal change of marital status, we cannot say the chancellor was manifestly wrong in granting Sarah Young a child’s share of Joe Estes’s estate.

This decision illustrates the principle that, if the chancellor’s decision correctly applies the law, and her findings of fact are supported by substantial evidence in the record, the decision should be, and most often is, affirmed on appeal, no matter how close the question or how eyebrow-raising the outcome.

There is much useful law here on the law of renunciation and its defense. This is actually an issue that arises from time to time in chancery, and you would do well to be ready for it.

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.


January 14, 2013 § 1 Comment

The COA case of Estate of Weill v. Weill, decided November 6, 2012, is a reminder of several quirks involved in renunciation of wills.

  • MCA 91-5-27 provides that if the decedent made no provision for a surviving spouse, the survivor has a right to share in the estate of the decedent as in the case where there is an unsatisfactory provision (see below), and no formal act of renunciation is necessary. Tillman v. Williams, 403 SO.2d 880, 881 (Miss. 1981).
  • In Weill, the decedent had left his surving spouse ” … my seven beloved dogs to care for. She is to be offered $25,000 from my assets to effect the transfer of my dogs to her home …” The chancellor and the COA rejected the appellant’s argument that the bequest was really for the benefit of the dogs, noting that the cash bequest was to her and not for benefit of the canines. Thus, since there was a bequest, she could not avail herself of MCA 91-5-27.
  • MCA 91-5-25 provides that if the decedent ” … does not make satisfactory provision …” for the spouse (the statute uses the word “wife”), then the spouse may renounce the will by filing a formal notice to the effect of the language suggested in the statute, and the spouse will thereupon be entitled to share in the estate to the extent set out in the statute. The renunciation must be filed within 90 days of the date of the admission of the will to probate.
  • In addressing one of the appellant’s arguments, the COA noted that a renunciation filed in the stautory form before probate of the will has been found to be adequate. Gettis v. McAllister, 411 So.2d 770 (Miss. 1982).  
  • In Weill, although the attorney for the widow had made it known to the court and counsel opposite that the widow intended to file a renunciation, no formal renunciation was filed within the 90 days. The chancellor and the COA  rejected the claim that an oral statement of intent to renounce complied with the statute.

When it comes to probate matters, the bottom line is that the requirements are all statutory, which means that they must be strictly construed and followed. Do not expect a chancellor or appellate court to fudge requirements for you because you “came close.” The fact is that close gets you no cigar. You have to be right on target. What is required is right there in the law, in black and white. If you don’t read the law in advance, you have no one to blame but yourself when things go embarrassingly and expensively wrong.

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