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Massachusetts court makes key ruling in estate planning case

The highest court in Massachusetts has ruled that when a spouse isn't mentioned in a will, they will receive one-third of the deceased spouse's estate. That recent decision of the Supreme Judicial Court has set a precedent for dealing with blended families.

The court ruled unanimously on the side of the second wife of a Charlton man who challenged her husband's will, which stated that his four adult children would inherit his real estate holdings.

The court determined that the law currently in force entitled the woman to share in the property and that it negated her husband's estate plan.

In making its decision, the court looked to legal guidelines that were more than 230 years old and last updated 55 years ago.

The justice who wrote the decision said that "the Legislature intended for the surviving spouse to have an ownership interest in the real property for life, not merely an interest in the income produced by the real property."

The man's will, dated in 2000, specified that his first wife would receive his estate, estimated at $675,000. She predeceased him, and the estate transferred to their children. He remarried in 2013 and died in 2015, but he never updated his will.

After his death, his second wife challenged the will. Although she remained in the couple's home, she and the children agreed the house could be sold while the judges sorted out the rest of the estate.

The woman's attorney said the man could have put the property into trust for his children, which would have left no question regarding the ownership. His lack of such action could have been an oversight, the attorney argued.

The court also urged the Massachusetts Legislature to look at making a revision to the law. "As practical matter, [the law] is unwieldy and perplexing to apply in most instances. The statute is in desperate need of an update and we urge the Legislature to do so."

This case is a good lesson in why estate planning when second marriages are involved is so important. You should consult an estate planning attorney before you tie the knot.

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