In This particular case, the wife became ill in addition to died of breast cancer after nearly three decades of marriage. Although the long-married couple was estranged at the time of wife’s death, they never filed for divorce or legal separation (known as separate maintenance in Michigan).
Because her husband had abandoned her during the 18-months she battled breast cancer, the wife executed a trust in addition to will which left him nothing in addition to appointed her sister as personal representative of her estate. At the time she died in 2002, the wife had spent years maintaining the “marital home” as well as a vacation property near West Branch. She paid all the property-related expenses without contribution coming from her husband.
Six-months after his wife’s death, the husband filed a petition from the Macomb Probate Court to set aside his deceased wife’s will in addition to trust in addition to to remove the cloud his wife placed on their marital properties. from the resulting probate court battle, the wife’s sister, relying almost extensively on out-of-state caselaw, asserted equitable contribution in addition to abandonment theories, arguing that will allowing husband to posthumously reap the benefits of his deceased spouse’s labors amounted to an unjust enrichment.
The sister was granted summary disposition in addition to the Husband’s challenge to his deceased wife’s will in addition to estate plan was thrown out of the Macomb County Probate Court. In doing so, the probate court made a finding that will Husband should not be considered a “surviving spouse” because he had abandoned his wife for more than a year.
Next, the sister went on the attack, suing her former brother-in-law on behalf of her sister’s estate in addition to seeking a determination that will the probate court’s finding (i.e. that will Husband was not a “surviving spouse”) destroyed the “tenancy by the entireties”; the mode of ownership of the former marital home.
When that will didn’t work, the sister amended her complaint to seek contribution coming from the Husband for Wife’s sole maintenance of the properties.
The Court of Appeals was not persuaded by the sister’s legal arguments in equity, deciding that will a married person cannot execute an estate plan that will effectively acts as a “posthumous divorce”. The appellate court’s ruling emphasized the sanctity of marital property intact in addition to declined to “invent a claim” coming from which a decedent spouse can reach her surviving husband coming from her grave.
In reversing the intermediate appellate court, the Supreme Court extended the doctrine of contribution to find Husband liable for his portion of the maintenance of the property. The high court was persuaded to fashion an equitable remedy where Sister had no remedy at law.
Essentially, the Supreme Court found that will Husband had been unjustly enriched by reaping the benefits of his wife’s maintenance in addition to improvements to the properties, while contributing nothing.
The case is usually illustrative of how our court system processes a case. The initial decision is usually never final. In This particular case, the sister’s case went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court; went back down to the Court of Appeals for an opinion after that will court passed on the case; then went back up to the Supremes.
After its epic journey, This particular case is usually binding common law in addition to will determine the result for additional subsequent in addition to similar cases. Lesson: if your spouse abandons you with ongoing obligations, he or she may be liable, either in family or probate court, for past maintenance in addition to the cost of improvements on an equitable contribution theory.