Divorce Stops In-Laws' Inheritance

Elder Law Answers case summary.The Minnesota Supreme Court holds that a marriage dissolution prevents ex-inlaws from inheriting under the divorced husband’s will. In re Tomczik (Minn. No. A21-1420, Jul 5, 2023).

Mathew Tomczik was married to Sara Headley, but they divorced. His will, created during the marriage, left everything to Ms. Headley and, if she predeceased him, devised one-half of his estate to her unnamed heirs at law. After Mr. Tomczik died without revising his will, his brother petitioned to probate the will. The petition identified the decedent’s siblings as his heirs and devisees, stated that Ms. Headley had no legal interest, and did not identify her heirs at law. Ms. Headley’s parents, Calvin and Patricia Headley, claimed they were wrongfully omitted as devisees.

The district court ruled that the in-laws were not beneficiaries, and they appealed. The Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the district court’s judgment. The appellate court reasoned that the marriage dissolution could not stop the ex-inlaws from inheriting under the divorced husband’s will because the will did not reveal that the testator intended to remove his wife’s heirs as beneficiaries in the event of a divorce, and Minnesota law does not require their exclusion. On review, the Minnesota Supreme Court reverses the appellate court’s judgment.

Minnesota law provides that divorce removes an ex-spouse as a beneficiary from their former spouse’s will as if the beneficiary had died. Although Ms. Headley survived her ex-husband, she concedes that she cannot inherit.

The Supreme Court of Minnesota considers whether a gift to a spouse’s unnamed heirs fails if the marriage dissolves after the execution of the will.

In this will, the term “heirs at law” does not refer to specific people but rather a class of individuals. The family ties with his then-wife identified the group. When Mr. Tomczik died, he had no wife, so there was no class of individuals comprising his wife’s heirs at law. As no individuals were named, Mr. Tomczik planned the phrase “my wife’s heirs at law” to encompass members of a group defined by familial ties, not individuals. When the marriage ended, the group of residual beneficiaries no longer existed because he no longer had a wife. Allowing the ex-wife’s heirs to inherit could lead to illogical results if she remarried or had children from a previous marriage.

Because ties to the wife defined the residual beneficiary class, the divorce terminated the relationship such that they are not devisees under the will.

Read the full opinion.