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Sveen v. Melin

Supreme Court of the United States

March 19, 2018, Argued; June 11, 2018, Decided

No. 16-1432.

Opinion

Justice Kagan delivered the opinion of the Court.

] A Minnesota law provides that “the dissolution or annulment of a marriage revokes any revocable[ ] beneficiary designation[ ] made by an individual to the individual’s former spouse.” Minn. Stat. §524.2-804, subd. 1 (2016). That statute establishes a default rule for use when Minnesotans divorce. If one spouse has made the other the beneficiary of a life insurance policy or similar asset, their divorce automatically revokes that designation—on the theory that the policyholder would want that result. But if he does not, the policyholder may rename [***6]  the ex-spouse as beneficiary.

We consider here whether applying Minnesota’s automatic-revocation rule to a beneficiary designation made before the statute’s enactment violates the Contracts Clause of the Constitution. We hold it does not.

All good trust-and-estate lawyers know that “[d]eath is not the end; there remains  [*1819]  the litigation over the estate.” 8 The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce 365 (1911). That epigram, beyond presaging this case, helps explain the statute at its center.

The legal system has long used default rules to resolve estate litigation in a way that conforms to decedents’ presumed intent. At common law, for example, marriage automatically revoked a woman’s prior will, while marriage and the birth of a child revoked a man’s. See 4 J. Kent, Commentaries on American Law 507, 512 (1830). The testator could then revive the old will or execute a new one. But if he (or she) did neither, the laws of intestate succession (generally prioritizing children and current spouses) would control the estate’s distribution. See 95 C. J. S., Wills §448, pp. 409-410 (2011); R. Sitkoff & J. Dukeminier, Wills, Trusts, and Estates 63 (10th ed. 2017). Courts reasoned that the average person would prefer that allocation to the one in [***7]  the old will, given the intervening life events. See T. Atkinson, Handbook of the Law of Wills 423 (2d ed. 1953). If he’d only had the time, the thought went, he would have replaced that will himself.

Changes in society brought about changes in the laws governing revocation of wills. In addition to removing gender distinctions, most States  [**185]  abandoned the common-law rule canceling whole wills executed before a marriage or birth. In its place, they enacted statutes giving a new spouse or child a specified share of the decedent’s estate while leaving the rest of his will intact. See Sitkoff & Dukeminier, Wills, Trusts, and Estates, at 240. But more important for our purposes, climbing divorce rates led almost all States by the 1980s to adopt another kind of automatic-revocation law. So-called revocation-on-divorce statutes treat an individual’s divorce as voiding a testamentary bequest to a former spouse. Like the old common-law rule, those laws rest on a “judgment about the typical testator’s probable intent.” Id., at 239. They presume, in other words, that the average Joe does not want his ex inheriting what he leaves behind.

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138 S. Ct. 1815 *; 201 L. Ed. 2d 180 **; 2018 U.S. LEXIS 3503 ***; 86 U.S.L.W. 4392; 27 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 317; 2018 WL 2767640

ASHLEY SVEEN, et al., Petitioners v. KAYE MELIN

Notice: The LEXIS pagination of this document is subject to change pending release of the final published version.

Subsequent History: On remand at, Remanded by Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Melin, 899 F.3d 953, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 22690 (8th Cir. Minn., Aug. 15, 2018)

Prior History:  [***1] ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT

Metro. Life Ins. Co. v. Melin, 853 F.3d 410, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 5750 (8th Cir. Minn., Apr. 3, 2017)

Disposition: Reversed and remanded.

CORE TERMS

divorce, beneficiary designation, contracts, impairing, policyholder, substantial impairment, contractual, rights, cases, retroactively, ex-spouse, marriage, revoking, former spouse, the will, revocation, proceeds, insured, contractual obligation, changes, life insurance policy, insurance policy, revocation-on-divorce, designation, violates, life insurance, bondholder, recording, alters, courts

Family Law, Marital Termination & Spousal Support, Dissolution & Divorce, Property Distribution, Constitutional Law, Congressional Duties & Powers, Contracts Clause, Scope, Application & Interpretation