• July 5, 2023

Almost a year ago, we predicted reversal of a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision relevant to divorce and a will that expressly provided that 50% of a man’s estate would pass to his ex-wife’s heirs. We were persuaded by Judge Segal’s dissent.

Our prediction was right! (A far more experienced and knowledgeable trusts and estates lawyer, Nathan Kavlie disagreed with our prediction. Nevertheless, Mr. Kavlie was certainly correct when he advised: “(1) A prudent drafter should clarify with a client who wants to provide for their spouse’s heirs/children/etc. if the bequest should terminate upon divorce (and the corresponding language should be written into the document); and (2) Divorcees should have their documents reviewed by an attorney.””

Mathew Tomczik had no wife at the time of his death when his will became operative. Because Mathew had no wife at the time of his death, the class of his ‘wife’s heirs-at-law’ no longer existed, and any gift to them must therefore fail.

Opinion at p. 10.

In construing a will to effectuate the intent of the testator, the court does not read the language of the instrument in a vacuum. Rather, ‘[i]f the court is to determine the testator’s intent based on the language of the will in light of the surrounding circumstances, it should draw those inferences from the surrounding circumstances that most closely reflect the plain meaning of the language.’ The reasonable inference in light of the surrounding circumstances at the time the will was executed is that Mathew intended for the beneficiaries under the alternate residuary clause to be defined in terms of their familial relation to him and that, should his and [ex-wife] Sara’s assets be divided at dissolution (at which point Sara ceased to be his ‘wife’), her heirs would not take under the will.

Opinion at p. 12.

The Minnesota Supreme Court (and the intermediate court of appeals) had a challenging decision in this case but, in our view, there was a “right answer,” or at least a “better answer” and Chief Judge Segal at the Court of Appeals and a unanimous Minnesota Supreme Court reached it. It’s good news and a win for careful legal reasoning reaching, in our view, a just result.