Ohio Probate Administration: Successfully enforcing the rights of a surviving spouse

Finney Law Firm prevails in “Mansion House case” through Ohio Supreme Court

Attorney Casey A. Taylor

Recently, our firm had a probate decision make its way all the way up to the Ohio Supreme Court as part of joint effort by Attorneys Isaac T. Heintz of our transactional team and Casey A. Taylor of our litigation team.

While the precise legal issues in that case were somewhat idiosyncratic (and certainly underutilized), the underlying situation in that case was not all that unique. That is, our firm has been approached on more than one occasion by an individual whose spouse has passed away and, to their surprise (or perhaps not), had disinherited them before their passing.

Many times, the surviving spouses are left believing they have no recourse and will be left with pennies on the dollar relative to the decedent’s estate. However, that is not always the case.

A Surviving Spouse’s Right to Purchase Assets from Decedent’s Estate

Under Ohio law, a surviving spouse has the right to purchase certain assets from an estate at the appraised value, including “the mansion house.” See R.C. 2106.16 (providing the right to purchase “the mansion house, including the decedent’s title in the parcel of land on which the mansion house is situated and lots or farm land adjacent to the mansion house and used in conjunction with it as the home of the decedent” at its appraised value, provided that it is not specifically devised/bequeathed to someone else).

The “mansion house” is often not an actual mansion, as the name would suggest but, generally speaking, can be thought of as the decedent’s primary residence. See id. (“. . . as the home of the decedent.”) (emphasis added). Additionally, if there is a farm associated with the mansion house, which is used in connection with the home (and not a commercial farming operation), the farm should also be subject to the surviving spouse’s right to purchase.

The statute, however, is not limited to the “mansion house” but also may apply to household goods and other personal property under certain circumstances. Although it is typically not the focal point of a surviving spouse’s rights, R.C. 2106.16 can provide an opportunity for a surviving spouse to promote a more expeditious resolution of an estate and, if the facts and circumstances are right, benefit monetarily.

As a threshold issue, R.C. 2106.16 only applies to assets that are, “not specifically devised or bequeathed.”  A specific devise or bequeath occurs when a Will specifically references a designated asset transferring to a particular party (e.g., I give to John Doe the real estate located on 123 General Street, Anytown, Ohio).

A residual devise/bequest, by contrast, almost never qualifies as a specific devise/bequest (e.g., I give to John Doe the rest, residue and remainder of my estate).  As long as the asset in question is not subject to a specific bequest, R.C. 2106.16 may be an option as to the asset in question.

R.C. 2106.16 – the “Mansion House Statute” – Applied in Real Life

Not only can the exercise of this right allow the surviving spouse to purchase and, at his or her election, remain in the home that served as the decedent’s residence (and, perhaps, as the surviving spouse’s residence too, though this is not required – keep reading. . . ), but it can also serve to maximize an otherwise disinherited spouse’s share under the decedent’s estate. For instance (and especially where the mansion house appraises for less than the surviving spouse believes it is worth), a practical, yet largely overlooked strategy available to surviving spouses is to purchase the mansion house (or another undervalued asset contemplated under the statute) and immediately sell it to a third-party purchaser for a higher price. R.C. 2106.16 imposes no requirement that the surviving spouse maintain ownership of the mansion house/asset for any set period of time.

Thus, if the subsequent sale generates excess proceeds, those proceeds would belong to the spouse. In this scenario, even a disinherited surviving spouse who would otherwise take very little under the decedent’s estate may be able to pocket a significant amount by capitalizing on the difference between the appraised value and market value/purchase price of a sale to a subsequent buyer, consistent with his or her rights under R.C. 2106.16.

Further, there may be instances where the purchase of one or more assets by the surviving spouse (or the threat of him/her purchasing) could help facilitate a resolution or settlement of the decedent’s estate. For example, if the asset is desired by the executory/adverse party, he or she may seek a prompt resolution if that asset is in jeopardy, or the surviving spouse could otherwise use his or her right to purchase as a bargaining chip of sorts.

These are just a couple of ways that R.C. 2106.16 could be used to the benefit of a surviving spouse in an otherwise less-than-ideal situation in a practical sense. This is an area where our firm excels – we have a well-rounded team, with experience in diverse areas of the law and real estate, who come together to develop innovative solutions for our clients.

Our Case

In our “Mansion House” case, our client was a surviving spouse asserting her right to purchase the home and farm owned by her husband, which served as his primary residence. The executor of the decedent’s estate challenged our client’s right to purchase the home/farm, arguing primarily that she (the surviving spouse) did not live at the home/farm full time at the time of her husband’s (the decedent) death. In essence, the executor wished to impose a residency requirement on the surviving spouse where the statute only contemplates the residency of the decedent. Though more secondary arguments, the executor also asserted that:

  • the property was somehow specifically devised by virtue of the residuary clause in the decedent’s will and, thus, excluded from the purview of R.C. 2106.16 (conveniently, the executor was the beneficiary of the residual and desired the home/farm), and that
  • if the decedent’s home was the “mansion house,” and if our client had a right to purchase it, that right did not extend to the farmlands adjacent to the home because they were a separate parcel.

The trial court rejected all three of the executor’s arguments and found for our client (i.e., that the home/farm at issue was a “mansion house” under that statute and that our client was entitled to purchase it at its appraised value). Specifically, the trial court found that the plain language of the statute does not impose a residency requirement on the surviving spouse – the “mansion house” is the home of the decedent.

Additionally, the residuary clause contained no specific devise of the property at issue. And lastly, the statute (R.C. 2106.16) explicitly contemplates “lots or farm land adjacent to the mansion house” and used in conjunction therewith. On appeal by the executor, the Twelfth District Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the finding in our client’s favor. You can read the full appellate decision HERE (link to 12th Dist. Decision).

In a final effort to thwart our client’s purchase of the property, the executor sought discretionary review from the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that the question was a great issue of public importance. The High Court, however, declined to exercise its jurisdiction to hear the case, leaving the lower court decisions for our client undisturbed.

Conclusion

This was a very favorable outcome for our client and our firm, and we take pride in our ability to deliver creative solutions to our clients’ unique, and often difficult, legal questions. If you would like to speak someone regarding estate planning or any other legal questions you may have, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us.  You may reach Isaac Heintz at 513.943.6654 and Casey Taylor at 513.943.5673.

 

Attorney | ‭513-943-5673 | casey@finneylawfirm.com | + posts

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