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Ciani v. MacGrath

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Worcester

January 8, 2019

SUSAN CIANI
v.
BRENDA L. MacGRATH & others.[1]

          Heard: September 6, 2018

         Petitions for partition filed in the Worcester Division of the Probate and Family Court Department on March 2, 2016.

         The cases were heard by Kathleen A. Sandman, J., on motions for summary judgment, and questions of law were reported by her to the Appeals Court.

         The Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct appellate review.

          Francis J. Russell for the plaintiff.

          Maria L. Remillard for the defendants.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          CYPHER, J.

         This case presents reported questions from a judge in the Probate and Family Court Department pursuant to G. L. c. 215, § 13, in connection with the judge's denial of the parties' competing motions for summary judgment. At issue is the meaning of a particular provision of G. L. c. 191, § 15 (§ 15), the Commonwealth's elective share statute.

         Section 15 is intended to prevent spousal disinheritance, either by inadvertence or design. See Bongaards v. Millen, 440 Mass. 10, 32 (2003). See generally Restatement (Third) of Property: Wills and Other Donative Transfers § 9.1 comment b (2003); 2 T.H. Belknap, Newhall's Settlement of Estates and Fiduciary Law in Massachusetts § 20:1 (5th ed. 1994). To that end, the statute provides a mechanism by which a dissatisfied surviving spouse can waive the provisions of a deceased spouse's will and take a statutorily prescribed share of the decedent's estate, with "the fractional portions and the nature of the interest depending on the presence or absence of issue and other kindred." Bongaards, supra at 20. For example, if the decedent left issue, then the surviving spouse is entitled to one-third of the decedent's real property and one-third of the decedent's personal property, except that

"if he or she would thus take real and personal property to an amount exceeding [$25, 000] in value, he or she shall receive, in addition to that amount, only the income during his or her life of the excess of his or her share of such estate above that amount, the personal property to be held in trust and the real property vested in him or her for life" (emphases added).

G. L. c. 191, § 15. The dispute in this case centers on the nature of a surviving spouse's interest in a deceased spouse's real property where the income-only limitation applies, i.e., where a surviving spouse's shares of a deceased spouse's personal and real property, taken together, exceed $25, 000 in value. We conclude that, to the extent a surviving spouse's shares of the decedent's estate exceed $25, 000, § 15 reduces his or her interest in the real property from outright ownership to a life estate. As a result, we vacate the judge's denial of the parties' competing motions for summary judgment and remand for reconsideration consistent with this opinion.

         Background.

         The following facts are undisputed. Raymond Ciani died testate in 2015. He was survived by his wife, Susan Ciani, and his four adult children from a previous marriage, one of whom is also the personal representative of his estate.

         Raymond did not make provisions for Susan in his will.[2]Susan timely claimed her elective share of Raymond's estate in accordance with § 15. She then filed three petitions for partition in the Probate and Family Court, seeking to force the sale of three separate parcels of real property Raymond had owned at the time of his death.

         In these petitions Susan represented to the court that she held a life estate in an undivided one-third of each property and that Raymond's children were tenants in common subject to her life estate. Raymond's children sought dismissal of the petitions as well as a declaration of the judge that, among other things, Susan does not have a right to petition for partition because § 15 does not afford Susan a life estate. Thereafter, they moved for summary judgment, asserting that the only contested issue was one of statutory interpretation. Susan cross-moved for summary judgment and sought a similar declaration providing that she does have a right to petition for partition because § 15 does afford her a life estate in an undivided one-third of Raymond's real property.

         The judge denied both motions, stating that an absence of edifying case law interpreting the specific provision of § 15 at issue precluded her from determining whether either side was entitled to judgment as a matter of law.[3] The judge then reported that ruling to the Appeals Court in accordance with G. L. c. 215, § 13, and framed three additional questions:

"1. Whether a Surviving Spouse has standing to bring an action for petition for partition of real estate, when her sole interest in the subject property originates from G. L. c. 191, § 15?
"2. What benefits and/or obligations does the phrase 'vested in him or her for life' as contained in G. L. c. 191, § 15, convey to the Surviving Spouse? Specifically, is a one-third life estate in the real estate created in favor of the Surviving Spouse; and, does the Surviving Spouse have a duty to contribute to the expenses of real estate during her lifetime?
"3. Upon the sale of real estate of which the Surviving Spouse holds an interest pursuant to G. L. c. 191, § 15, what portion of the proceeds, if any, should be distributed to her free from trust?"

         We took up the matter on direct appellate review.

         D ...


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