Childless Joseph marries Sally in 1993. Sally comes into the marriage with one child, Katelyn, then aged 8.
In 2005 Joseph and Sally prepare estate plans, including Joseph’s pour-over will in which he refers to Katelyn as a stepchild and a joint Trust, settled by the two of them, in which Katelyn is referred to as their only child. The trust provided that the surviving spouse would retain full control of the trust res, and that upon the death of the second to die, all would go to Katelyn (the Appellant). In addition, the trust goes on to say that in the event of no named taker, all to Dorothy and Judith (the Appellees).
Sally and Joseph divorce in 2019. Joseph dies a few months after the divorce, leaving the 2005 documents unaltered.
Katelyn claims that the divorce terminated her mother’s right to inherit, but not hers. Dorothy and Judith say they law terminates Katelyn’s rights, same as Sally’s. Dorothy and Judith win on summary disposition in the trial court, and in this published opinion, the Court of Appeals affirms. To read In Re Joseph and Sally Grablick Trust, click on the name.
The parties stipulate that the only issue is whether Michigan’s law regarding the effect of a divorce on an inheritance (MCL 700.2807) ended Katelyn’s interest in Joseph’s will and the joint trust.
That statute says that when the parties divorce, the ex-spouse and all his/her “relatives” are treated as pre-deceased. In MCL 700.2806, the word “relative” is defined as: “an individual who is related to the divorced individual’s former spouse by blood, adoption, or affinity and who, after the divorce or annulment, is not related to the divorced individual by blood, adoption, or affinity.”
Katelyn argues that although, at the time of Joseph’s death, she was not related to Joseph by blood or marriage, she was nonetheless related to him by affinity because of the strong emotional bond that existed between them.
The argument seems tenuous, if not misguided, in light of the fact that the statute specifically says that the interests of persons related by affinity are ended by divorce as well. But Katelyn tries to make hay by arguing that the inclusion of the term “affinity” in the statute opens the door to more amorphous forms of relationships that evade the scope of the law. (At least that’s what I think she tried to argue.)
The COA panel spends a surprising amount of time reviewing the law, only to end up agreeing with the trial court.
Supplemental Thoughts and Conclusions
– It was interesting to learn (or be reminded) that before the adoption of EPIC in 2000, the Revised Probate Court cut out the spouse upon divorce but not the relatives of the spouse. The unpublished cases discussed in this opinion involving documents created prior to 2000 in which the testator/settlor died after the adoption of EPIC are curious.
– The definition of “affinity” that the COA lands on is interesting as well. They find it to mean:
the relation existing in consequence of marriage between each of the married persons and the blood relatives of the other, and the degrees of affinity are computed in the same way as those of consanguinity or kindred. A husband is related, by affinity, to all the blood relatives of his wife, and the wife is related, by affinity, to all blood relatives of the husband.
– These issues come up. I am troubled that this case will be read a blanket preclusion against named relatives of former spouses having grounds to claim an interest in an estate/trust even where they are specifically named, so long as the document in which they are named predates the divorce. I hope that is not the law, but I am concerned that it may now be perceived to be. This is, after all, a published decision.
While it is hard to say (because the record was not developed), it seems at least likely that the outcome of this case was inconsistent with intentions of the decedent, Joseph having essentially raised Katelyn and presumably feeling towards her as any parent would toward their own child, notwithstanding a divorce. But the Appellant stipulated that the only issue was the application of MCL 700.2806 and 700.2807 to these facts, making her case seemingly unwinnable. I wonder if Katelyn would have been better served had the argument been framed as an ambiguity based on the reference to Katelyn by Joseph as his “only child,” thereby perhaps allowing extrinsic evidence that would have favored Katelyn’s desired result. Bad lawyering can make bad law as often, I think, as bad facts can. At the risk of second-guessing counsel without having been involved, I fear that may have happened here.
– If you have some quiet time to kill, it’s a fun case to read. Few things feel more lawyerly than reading a case when the outcome teeters on the meaning we give to a particular series of letters. Maybe that isn’t totally the situation in this case, but at times, while reading the decision, it feels like it.