King v. Nash (In re Estate of Erwin), Docket Nos. 153980-153981

CourtSupreme Court of Michigan
Writing for the CourtWilder, J.
Citation921 N.W.2d 308,503 Mich. 1
Decision Date31 July 2018
Docket NumberDocket Nos. 153980-153981,Calendar No. 1
Parties IN RE ESTATE OF James ERWIN, Sr., Beatrice King, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of James Erwin, Sr., Appellant, v. Jacqueline E. Nash, Billy J. Erwin, Demarkius Erwin, Maggie Erwin, and Stacy Erwin Oakes, Appellees. In re Estate of James Erwin, Sr., Beatrice King, Appellant, v. Jacqueline E. Nash, Billy J. Erwin, Demarkius Erwin, Maggie Erwin, Stacy Erwin Oakes, and Douglas Taylor, Appellees.

503 Mich. 1
921 N.W.2d 308

IN RE ESTATE OF James ERWIN, Sr.,

Beatrice King, Individually and as Personal Representative of the Estate of James Erwin, Sr., Appellant,
v.
Jacqueline E. Nash, Billy J. Erwin, Demarkius Erwin, Maggie Erwin, and Stacy Erwin Oakes, Appellees.


In re Estate of James Erwin, Sr.,

Beatrice King, Appellant,
v.
Jacqueline E. Nash, Billy J. Erwin, Demarkius Erwin, Maggie Erwin, Stacy Erwin Oakes, and Douglas Taylor, Appellees.

Docket Nos. 153980-153981
Calendar No. 1

Supreme Court of Michigan.

Argued April 12, 2018
Decided July 31, 2018
Rehearing Granted in part October 5, 2018


Wilder, J.

921 N.W.2d 310
503 Mich. 5

The Estates and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC), MCL 700.1101 et seq ., governs the distribution of an individual’s property at death. Among other reasons, the Legislature enacted it "[t]o promote a speedy and efficient system for liquidating a decedent’s estate and making distribution to the decedent’s successors." MCL 700.1201. EPIC grants a decedent’s surviving spouse certain rights. For example, the surviving spouse of a decedent who dies intestate—that is, without a will— may still take a share of the decedent’s property. MCL 700.2202(1). In fact, even if the decedent dies testate—with a will—a surviving spouse may take a share different from that allocated by the will’s plain terms. MCL 700.2202(2). However, not every spouse can rely on these rights. For example, a valid

503 Mich. 6

divorce or annulment severs such reliance. MCL 700.2801(1). Alternatively, a spouse living in a bigamous relationship at the time of the decedent’s death is also excluded. MCL 700.2801(2)(d). Although EPIC anticipates a number of other circumstances,1 only one is at issue in the instant case: whether the surviving spouse was "willfully absent" from the decedent for more than one year before his death and is therefore ineligible under MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i ) to exercise her rights under EPIC.

This case turns on the meaning of "willfully absent" as used in MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i ). In the proceeding below, the Court of Appeals concluded that "willful absence for the purposes of the EPIC is a factual question that may concern more than physical proximity," and that a "trial court should determine whether a spouse is willfully absent ... by considering all the facts and circumstances of the case." In re Erwin Estate , unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued May 10, 2016 (Docket Nos. 323387 and 329264), pp. 2-3. We granted leave to consider two questions, both of first impression: (1) whether the term "willfully absent" is defined exclusively by physical separation, or whether it includes consideration of the emotional bonds and connections between spouses; and (2) whether MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i ) requires proof that a spouse intends to abandon his or her marital rights. For the reasons now discussed, we affirm.

503 Mich. 7

I

The decedent, James Erwin, Sr., had six children from a previous marriage when he married appellee Maggie Erwin in 1968. James and Maggie went on to have four children together, bringing James’s total number of children to 10. Several years after their wedding, James and Maggie bought a house in Saginaw. However, although remaining in Saginaw, Maggie moved out and established a separate residence in 1976. She subsequently petitioned James for financial assistance, and James consented to a support order that provided

921 N.W.2d 311

assistance for Maggie and for their children. But the two continued to live apart. There is no indication that they ever lived under the same roof again.

Decades later, in 2010, James and Maggie joined together as plaintiffs and sued James’s employer to reinstate Maggie’s health insurance coverage in accordance with his retiree medical benefits. The couple was represented by L. Fallasha Erwin, James’s son from his first marriage. During the proceedings, it was stated that Maggie was in poor health and that if she were to die, the loss to James would be irreparable. James made it clear that Maggie was still his wife and that they had an ongoing relationship.

On October 12, 2012, James died intestate. James and Maggie had never filed for divorce nor had they otherwise formally separated. In the eyes of the law, they very much remained married until the time of James’s passing. As testament to this fact, Maggie was listed as James’s surviving spouse on his death certificate.

Following his death, Maggie and James’s children proceeded to sort through his estate informally. Yet all was not well with the related but distinct families that

503 Mich. 8

James had fathered. Apparently dissatisfied with the communication and cooperation shown by Maggie and her four children, one of James’s children from his first marriage, Beatrice King, represented by her attorney-brother, L. Fallasha Erwin, petitioned the probate court to open formal proceedings and to be appointed as the estate’s personal representative. On June 12, 2013, eight months after James’s death and with no other interested party objecting, the probate court granted Beatrice’s petition.2

The probate court proceedings were contentious from the outset, with allegations of deceit and calls for sanctions. Both sides of James’s family were involved and filed motions, only one of which is relevant to the case as it currently comes before us. In 2014, Beatrice asked the probate court to determine whether Maggie was a surviving spouse in accordance with EPIC. Beatrice argued, in part, that Maggie was not a surviving spouse under MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i ) because she was "willfully absent" from James in the years leading up to his death. If proved, because James died intestate, Maggie would not be an heir for the purposes of inheritance. She would not be entitled to a share of James’s estate.

On May 31, 2014, the probate court held a hearing on Beatrice’s motion, and on July 17, 2014, it decided that motion in Maggie’s favor in a written opinion,

503 Mich. 9

ruling that Maggie was James’s surviving spouse. Beatrice appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court’s ruling. We subsequently granted Beatrice’s application for leave to appeal, limited to the two questions described earlier.

II

We review de novo questions of statutory interpretation. People v. Buehler , 477 Mich. 18, 23, 727 N.W.2d 127 (2007). However, any underlying findings of fact are reviewed only for clear error.

921 N.W.2d 312

People v. Knight , 473 Mich. 324, 338, 701 N.W.2d 715 (2005) ; see MCR 2.613(C).

III

A

For the purposes of EPIC, a surviving spouse does not include

[a]n individual who ... for 1 year or more before the death of the deceased person:

(i ) Was willfully absent from the decedent spouse. [ MCL 700.2801(2)(e).]

With this in mind, we turn to the first question: whether the term "willfully absent" is defined exclusively by physical separation, or whether it includes consideration of the emotional bonds and connections between spouses?

1

As an initial matter, we note that EPIC does not define the term "willfully absent." Because our goal is to glean legislative intent from the plain meaning of statutory language,

503 Mich. 10

Wickens v. Oakwood Healthcare Sys. , 465 Mich. 53, 60, 631 N.W.2d 686 (2001), the dictionary is our first point of reference to determine the term’s significance, People v. Morey , 461 Mich. 325, 330, 603 N.W.2d 250 (1999). The common understanding and the traditional legal usage of a term also guide our interpretation. People v. Thompson , 477 Mich. 146, 151-152, 730 N.W.2d 708 (2007) ; see also MCL 8.3a ("All words and phrases shall be construed and understood according to the common and approved usage of the language; but technical words and phrases, and such as may have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law, shall be construed and understood according to such peculiar and appropriate meaning.").

MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i ) uses the term "absent" as an adjective to describe a person’s conduct in relation to his or her spouse. In this context, "absent" could mean that someone is missing, not present, or, alternatively, that a person is exhibiting inattentiveness toward another. The American Heritage Dictionary (2d ed.); Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).3 The word "willful," whether or not used as a legal term of art, describes an act that is voluntary, deliberate and intentional. Random House Webster’s (2d ed.); Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed.). But the intent to commit any act does not, by itself, render it "willful." Rather, a "willful" act is one that is taken with the intent to do something specific. Jennings v. Southwood , 446 Mich. 125, 140, 521 N.W.2d 230 (1994) ; cf. People v. Beaudin , 417 Mich. 570, 575, 339 N.W.2d 461 (1983) (explaining that a willful act is one committed with the specific intent to bring about the...

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24 practice notes
  • Franks v. Franks, No. 343290
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • September 24, 2019
    ...is, the action is undertaken with "the specific intent to bring about the particular result the statute seeks to prohibit." In re Erwin , 503 Mich. 1, 10-11, 921 N.W.2d 308 (2018), mod 503 Mich. 876 (2018) (citation omitted). Because the statute refers to "acts" by the directors or persons ......
  • Midwest Inst. of Health, PLLC v. Governor of Mich. (In re Certified Questions from the U.S. Dist. Court), No. 161492
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • October 2, 2020
    ...assume the contextually appropriate ordinary meaning unless 506 Mich. 412 there is reason to think otherwise.’ " In re Erwin Estate , 503 Mich. 1, 33 n. 15, 921 N.W.2d 308 (2018) ( VIVIANO , J., dissenting), quoting Reading Law , p. 70. But, as Scalia and Garner are quick to point out, "[s]......
  • People v. Wood, Docket No. 159063
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • July 28, 2020
    ...Scalia & Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (St. Paul: Thomson/West, 2012), p. 418. See also In re Erwin Estate , 503 Mich. 1, 33, 921 N.W.2d 308 (2018) ( Viviano , J., dissenting) ("[W]hen a word has more than one definition, the context determines the sense in which th......
  • Pirtle v. Legislative Council Comm. of the N.M., S-1-SC-38356
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • June 30, 2021
    ...of the two inconsistent alternative definitions is more "contextually appropriate" than the other. See In re Estate of Erwin v. Nash , 503 Mich. 1, 921 N.W. 2d 308, 324 & n.15 (Mich. 2018) (Viviano, J., dissenting) ("[W]hen a word has more than one definition, the context determines the sen......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
24 cases
  • Franks v. Franks, No. 343290
    • United States
    • Court of Appeal of Michigan (US)
    • September 24, 2019
    ...is, the action is undertaken with "the specific intent to bring about the particular result the statute seeks to prohibit." In re Erwin , 503 Mich. 1, 10-11, 921 N.W.2d 308 (2018), mod 503 Mich. 876 (2018) (citation omitted). Because the statute refers to "acts" by the directors or persons ......
  • Midwest Inst. of Health, PLLC v. Governor of Mich. (In re Certified Questions from the U.S. Dist. Court), No. 161492
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • October 2, 2020
    ...assume the contextually appropriate ordinary meaning unless 506 Mich. 412 there is reason to think otherwise.’ " In re Erwin Estate , 503 Mich. 1, 33 n. 15, 921 N.W.2d 308 (2018) ( VIVIANO , J., dissenting), quoting Reading Law , p. 70. But, as Scalia and Garner are quick to point out, "[s]......
  • People v. Wood, Docket No. 159063
    • United States
    • Supreme Court of Michigan
    • July 28, 2020
    ...Scalia & Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (St. Paul: Thomson/West, 2012), p. 418. See also In re Erwin Estate , 503 Mich. 1, 33, 921 N.W.2d 308 (2018) ( Viviano , J., dissenting) ("[W]hen a word has more than one definition, the context determines the sense in which th......
  • Pirtle v. Legislative Council Comm. of the N.M., S-1-SC-38356
    • United States
    • New Mexico Supreme Court of New Mexico
    • June 30, 2021
    ...of the two inconsistent alternative definitions is more "contextually appropriate" than the other. See In re Estate of Erwin v. Nash , 503 Mich. 1, 921 N.W. 2d 308, 324 & n.15 (Mich. 2018) (Viviano, J., dissenting) ("[W]hen a word has more than one definition, the context determines the sen......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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