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Marriage law and inheritance rights at odds in Minnesota

A recent case of probate litigation in Hennepin County may determine whether a Twin Cities resident should be entitled to claim an inheritance from his long-time partner and same-sex spouse in the absence of a will. The couple married in a state that recognized same-sex unions. The case before the probate court questions whether Minnesota's Defense of Marriage Act prohibits recognizing a same-sex spouse as the legal heir of a deceased partner.

The man and his partner lived together and maintained joint financial accounts for 25 years. Proceeds from the sale of a jointly owned house sat in an investment account in the deceased partner's name with no designated beneficiary. In addition, a beneficiary designation was mistakenly omitted from a life insurance policy. The combined value of the accounts amounts to approximately $250,000.

Unfortunately for the Twin Cities man, his partner had not prepared a will before dying suddenly from a heart attack. Because the investment account and insurance policy had no designated beneficiaries, the accounts became subject to probate administration as assets of the deceased partner's estate.

Under Minnesota's laws of intestacy, the estate assets of an unmarried person pass to surviving parents in the absence of a will directing otherwise. Minnesota law regards a same-sex marriage, including one recognized by the laws of another state, as void. Contractual rights that would arise under a legally recognized marriage are deemed unenforceable with respect to a prohibited marriage. The court must now decide whether the law also operates to negate inheritance rights under an out-of-state same-sex marriage.

The parents of the deceased man say that he would have wanted his surviving partner to receive the inheritance, so the court's decision may represent only a technicality when it comes to the distribution of estate assets. Nonetheless, the case illustrates one of many ways in which probate litigation can arise when a loved one dies without a will.

Source: Star Tribune, "Hennepin probate case shows how marriage law stymies inheritance," Abby Simons, May 25, 2012

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