Thursday, December 31, 2009

Can Family Court Trump Your Clear Wishes?

Last week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in a case, brought as a part of a divorce, that may have major implications for estate planning.

In re the Marriage of Angell, A09-349, the Court reviewed a family court decision to split insurance and survivor's benefits between parents of soldier killed in Iraq, even when the beneficiary designation clearly named only the mother as beneficiary. Generally, survivor benefits, inheritances, insurance proceeds and the like are considered non-marital property. This designation ends up following the probate courts' rule of thumb, to follow the decedent's wishes.

In this case, the family court used a family law statute which allows the court to award non-marital property, if in the interest of fairness, and split the proceeds. Court of Appeals remanded, or gave it back the lower court, on the basis that the court couldn't apply the Minnesota statute to federal benefits because federal law prohibits attachment to federal benefits and the federal law trumps. However, the ruling leaves open the question of whether the family court can go against a decedent's wishes and give some assets to a beneficiary's spouse when a federal statute is not involved.

It looks likely that this will be appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which may or may not give more guidance.

You can find the case here,

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