“Abandonment” by one spouse can lead to disinheritance

The New York Supreme Court weighed in earlier this year regarding the legal concept of “abandonment” for inheritance law purposes. Under state law, a spouse who has abandoned his or her deceased spouse may be disqualified from an inheritance if the surviving spouse permanently left the marital home without justification or the other spouse’s consent. This legal concept only applies if the deceased spouse left no will or trust; if there are estate planning documents in place, the court will follow the provisions in the will or trust so long as those provisions are legally valid.

However, New York law will also void provisions in a will that refer to an ex-spouse, so long as there was a final decree of divorce, separation or annulment in place at the time of death. Basically, once divorced, New York law views the ex-spouse as if he or she was deceased.

The issue of abandonment

The recent case on abandonment before the New York Supreme Court weighed in on when a spouse abandons, but does not divorce, his or her partner. The decedent and the surviving spouse got married in 1974, but lived in separate residences from 1998 until the decedent’s death in 2008. The decedent died without a will. The decedent’s sister filed a petition to disqualify the spouse and to have her removed as the administrator of the estate. The Surrogate’s Court dismissed the petition and the decedent’s sister appealed.

The Appellate Division’s ruling

The New York Supreme Court ultimately disagreed with the lower court, as there was conflicting evidence regarding which spouse left the other. The court also found that it was unclear whether her departure was justified and was without the decedent’s consent. Under state law, if a spouse has a valid reason to leave the other, such as abuse, then there is no issue of abandonment.

The surviving spouse claimed that she lived apart from her husband with his consent and that her absence was justified because the decedent was heavy drinker and physically and emotionally abusive.

The decedent’s sister submitted evidence disputing these claims, and that, from conversations she had with the decedent, he would not have consented to his spouse living apart from him, and that he had specifically asked the spouse to return to him. The decedent’s sister also submitted cards that the decedent gave to the spouse expressing his love for her. The conflicting facts led the New York Supreme Court to send the case back down to the Surrogate’s Court for further legal proceedings.

Having an estate plan in place can help avoid potential family conflicts over estate assets and ensure that disbursement is made in accordance with the wishes of the decedent, not state law. Proper estate planning can also minimize taxes and avoid costs and delays in probate. Individuals in need of creating or revising an estate plan should speak to an experienced New York estate planning attorney.