A January 8th decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) supported the claim of a second wife, represented by Mountain Dearborn, who sought to receive her legal share of the real estate that her husband left to his four children. The case highlights the importance of understanding the legal consequences of marriage, especially when you have children from a prior relationship.

When you marry in Massachusetts, your spouse automatically becomes entitled to receive certain rights and benefits, unless both parties agree otherwise. For instance, your spouse automatically becomes the beneficiary of any qualified retirement plan which you then have, or to which you begin contributing, during the marriage, such as a 401k or 403b plan. You do not have a right to omit your spouse as beneficiary of such plans unless your spouse signs a waiver of his or her interest.

The recent SJC decision highlights another fact: Marriage in the Commonwealth automatically gives your spouse the right to take a portion of your estate upon your death. If at the time of your death you do not have a will, your spouse will receive a portion of your estate based on MGL c. 190B, Section 2-102, which is known as the intestacy statute. But if you do have a will, and if the will specifically or indirectly excludes your spouse, then your spouse may still be entitled to receive a portion of your estate based upon MGL c. 191, Section 15, which is known as the “spousal elective share.”

A Spouse Has a Vested Life Interest in Any Real Estate

In the case we argued before the SJC, we represented a disinherited wife. The Decedent signed a will in 2000 that left his estate to his first wife; upon her death, their four children were to be the sole beneficiaries. His first wife died, and he remarried in 2013. He died in 2015, without changing his 2000 will.

Our client claimed her spousal elective share of the Decedent’s real estate. The issue before the SJC was how a spouse’s interest in real property should be handled when a spousal claim has been made. In other words, the SJC was asked to address what interest a decedent’s spouse has in the decedent’s real estate.

In a unanimous decision, the SJC held that a spouse has a vested “life interest” in any real estate. With that interest, the spouse has the right to have the property sold, if he or she wishes to do so. If the real estate is sold, then the spouse is entitled to receive outright the portion of the proceeds that represent his or her life interest. The SJC’s full decision can be viewed here.

SJC Ruling Raises Important Issues to Consider When Remarrying

We hope the SJC’s ruling provides Massachusetts lawyers with clarification as to how a decedent’s real estate should be managed by the estate’s personal representative when a surviving spouse claims an elective share. The SJC’s decision has also drawn interest not only from lawyers but also from the community in general, and we hope the ruling raises awareness about issues to consider when remarrying.

Especially when you have children from a prior relationship, it is important to seek legal counsel before marrying. You should ensure that you protect not only your new spouse and yourself but also your children and other beneficiaries. Do not leave your loved ones with the stressful conundrum of trying to guess what your wishes were. Without proper planning and an understanding of the legal rights which arise out of marriage, you may leave your loved ones with additional heartache beyond losing you.

I would be pleased to assist you with these significant decisions regarding marriage and estate planning. Contact me at bagdis@mountaindearborn.com or 508-756-2423.