Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Worcester
Heard: September 6, 2018
for partition filed in the Worcester Division of the Probate
and Family Court Department on March 2, 2016.
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.
Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct
Francis J. Russell for the plaintiff.
L. Remillard for the defendants.
Present: Gants, C.J., Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, &
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
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.
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.
did not make provisions for Susan in his will.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.
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
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. 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?"
up the matter on direct appellate review.