The Michigan Supreme Court ruled in the case of In Re Erwin Estate that a wife could inherit as her deceased husband’s “surviving spouse” after her husband’s death, even though they had separated and been living apart for over 30 years. The husband James Erwin died without a will, which means his estate was to be divided and distributed under Michigan’s rules of intestate succession. Since James had children from a previous marriage, and children from his marriage with his wife Maggie at the time of his death, the rules for division and distribution of his estate called for a substantial share of his assets to pass to his wife Maggie, with the rest to be divided between his children.
One of James’ children challenged Maggie’s position as as “surviving spouse” citing Michigan statute MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i) which states a spouse is not considered a “surviving spouse” for inheritance purposes if he or she was “willfully absent” from the marriage for the year or more leading up to the spouse’s death. In order to be “willfully absent,” an individual must have intended to be completely absent from his or her spouse. To determine whether a spouse was completely absent, courts are required to consider whether under the totality of the circumstances, the spouse was emotionally and physically absent for the requisite period such that it resulted in a practical end to the marriage.
In this case, the court found that James and Maggie maintained close emotional ties despite not living together for over 3 decades before James’ death. The outcome of the case would have been different if the court believed under all the circumstances that the parties were physically and emotionally absent from each other for at least the one year preceding James’ death.
The court’s ruling opens more uncertainty for families left behind under circumstances where husband and wife were not living together for the year before one spouse’s death, and where the decedent leaves no Will. Determining whether the decedent and his or her spouse maintained enough of an emotional relationship for the surviving spouse to qualify to inherit is a heavily factual issue which will require the trial court to hear testimony from multiple witnesses into the details of family life. This can become time consuming and expensive for all parties. If however the decedent has a valid Last Will in place when he or she dies, there is relatively little uncertainty as to how their assets are to be divided upon their death. There is much less at stake for the family to fight over.