Alimony & Spousal Support

Spouses Foreit Intestate Inheritance Where They Act As A Divorced Individuals.

In the family law, estate litigation and estate administration case of in Recht, PICS Case No. 16-0074, (C.P Monroe, July 13th, 2015) the Honorable David J. Williamson ruled that where the parties lived apart for more than one year, resided in separate homes titled in their respective names, were financially independent of each other and had romantic relationships with others, the evidence supported a finding that appellant forfeited her right in her husband’s estate under 23 Pa,C.S.A. 2106(a)(1). Revocation of letters of administration initially issued to her affirmed.

Bruce and Fern Racht were married in 1987. They separated in April 2007. At that time they owned a home in Monroe County but had been living with Fern’s elderly parents in New Jersey to assist in their care. When they separated, Bruce returned to Pennsylvania. Fern filed for divorce in August 2007. she filed a notice of intention to proceed in 2011, but no other action was taken and the parties remained legally married.

Bruce died in 2014. Letters of administration were issued to Fern. However, Bruce’s sister filed an objection to the issuance. After the hearing, the Register of Wills revoked the letters and re-issued them to Bruce’s sister. Fern appealed.

The court said that, under 20 Pa.C.S.A. 2102(a), any part of a decedent’s estate not effectively disposed of by a will, operation of law or by beneficiary designation would pass to his intestate heirs. The instate share of a decedent’s surviving spouse was the entire estate when, as here, there were no surviving issue or parents.

However, under  20 Pa.C.S.A. 2106(a)(1), a spouse would forfeit her right to the estate if, for one year or more before the decedent’s death, she had willfully neglected or refused to perform the duty to support her spouse. Under 2106(a)(2), she would forfeit her right to the estate if her spouse died domiciled in the commonwealth during the course of a divorce proceeding, no decree of divorce had been entered and grounds had been established as provided in 23 Pa.C.S.A. 3323(g).

However, it held that 2106(a)(1) was applicable, concluding that the facts supported a finding that, for more one year prior to Bruce’s death, Fern had willfully neglected or refused to perform a duty to support him. It said the record showed that, after the separation, the parties remained friendly but were financially independent. When Fern returned to Pennsylvania after her parents died, she resided in a mobile home titled solely in her name.  In 2013, she conveyed her interest in the Monroe County home to Bruce, and he refinanced it with a mortgage in his name only. Both parties had romantic relationships with other people after their separation, and Fern was cohabiting with another party when Bruce died.

The court noticed that Fern gave tacit consent to decedent’s departure from her parents’ home in 2007, and she did not attempt to return to the marital residence to live with him.

Citing case law that deprived the parties of the right to each other’s estates where they both acted as divorced individuals, evidencing a belief that their marriages were terminated, the court found that Fern and Bruce had both acted and presented themselves as if they were divorced and that the Register of Wills’ determination was appropriate. It therefore upheld the decision to revoke the letters for Fern and to re-issue them to decedent’s sister.

The court also found that Fern had forfeited her interest and right to the estate under 2106(a)(1).

Reference: Digest of Recent Opinions, Pennsylvania Law Weekly 39 PLW 93 (January 26, 2016)

Filed Under: Estate Litigation, Estate Administration; Surviving Spouse’s Interstate Inheritance

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