The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled on July 5 in the case of a man who had not updated his will following his divorce, leaving family members to fight over whether his ex-in-laws should receive part of his estate.
The ruling reversed a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision that had been troubling Minnesota estate planning attorneys since it was issued in May 2022. In the Matter of the Estate of Mathew Joseph Tomczik, the Court of Appeals determined that if a person names their former spouse in a will, an alternate residuary gift in that will to "my spouse's heirs" remains in place in the event of a divorce.
In its recent ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court determined that the Court of Appeals' decision could lead to outcomes that many divorced couples would not intend. And while the new ruling provides a needed clarification in the law, it also serves as a reminder that people should consider updating their estate plans, especially after key life events such as divorce.
The Challenges Posed by In re Tomczik
In this Minnesota case, Mathew Tomczik and his then-wife, Sara Tomczik, drafted wills that were mirror images of each other. In Mathew's will, he named "Sara Tomczik" as his wife. Mathew's will included an alternate residuary provision giving half to his heirs and half to "my wife's." Seven years after these wills were drafted, Mathew and Sara divorced. Mathew died two years after the divorce without ever revising his will. Neither Mathew nor Sara had children.
Under the Minnesota Uniform Probate Code, divorce revokes a gift made to a former spouse in a will that was made before the divorce. Therefore, Sara could get nothing. And because neither Mathew nor Sara had any children, the alternate residuary provision—half to his heirs and half to his wife's—kicked in.
Upon Mathew's death, his brother, who was named executor of the estate, assumed that the residuary provision's gift of half to "my wife's heirs-at-law" was no longer valid because Mathew did not have a spouse when he died. However, when the brother petitioned a court to probate Mathew's estate, claiming Mathew's siblings as the only beneficiaries of Mathew's will, an objection came from an unlikely source—Mathew's former parents-in-law, Calvin and Patricia Headley.
While the Headleys agreed that Mathew's ex-wife, Sara, could not receive a gift under the will, they still argued that they were beneficiaries under the alternate residuary provision because they were Sara's heirs-at-law and "my wife" was defined as "Sara Tomczik." They argued that there was no provision in the law that addressed divorce's effect on gifts to a former spouse's family, nor any reason to assume that Mathew intended for the divorce to invalidate the gift to Sara's heirs.
The Minnesota Supreme Court's Decision
The Supreme Court held that divorce may invalidate a gift to a former spouse's family—depending on the language in the will. First, the court affirmed that a gift to someone described by their familial relationship and also named is not made invalid if there is no longer a familial relationship due to a divorce. For instance, the court recognized that, in a previous Minnesota case, a gift to "my stepdaughter Dawn" was not rendered invalid by divorce; even if Dawn was no longer a stepdaughter as a result of the divorce, Dawn was still identified in the will.
The court further noted that "my wife's heirs-at-law," were not specifically named in the will. The court reasoned that, since Mathew had no wife at the time of his death, the class of people who would be "my wife's heirs-at-law" did not exist.
Further, the Supreme Court held that it is a reasonable inference—a reasonable assumption—that any person who divorces another would no longer want to include a gift to their former spouse's heirs, because any familial relationship between that person and their ex-spouse's heirs was dissolved by the divorce. Therefore, the court inferred that Mathew intended for the gift of his alternative residuary provision to be for the benefit of people defined by their familial relationship to him, not his ex-wife.
We Can Help
Although In re Tomczik clarified how estate plans should be interpreted following a divorce in a way that likely aligns with most people's wishes, it is always best to check and periodically update your estate plans. This is especially important after major life events such as divorce, the birth of a child, a child reaching the age of 18, or a major shift in your financial situation.
Maslon's estate planning attorneys follow developments in the law and use their extensive knowledge and expertise to navigate complex estate planning issues for their clients. Our attorneys can offer guidance on how to best protect your assets and ensure your wishes for your estate are properly carried out upon your death. Please contact us for assistance.
 It is common for estate planning attorneys to draft "alternate residuary provisions" for married couples that take effect in the event that all of the beneficiaries of the will die before the testator—the person making the will—and cannot receive their gifts. These provisions generally state that the assets of a married testator should be split equally between their "heirs-at-law" and their spouse's heirs-at-law.
The term "heirs-at-law" or simply “heirs” refers to anyone who has a legal right under state law to inherit a person's assets when that person dies without a will, typically children or grandchildren, but potentially parents, siblings, etc. The idea of an alternate residuary provision is to keep an estate's gifts in a person's family when circumstances change dramatically after the will is drafted.