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Widow gives it away and still gets to keep real estate


Sharon and Ron married in 1986, but couldn’t live together. After several separations, in 2005 they split for good, and Sharon had another guy. Sharon signed a deed at Ron’s request, apparently giving up her interest in a piece of real estate that they owned as husband and wife. But they never divorced.

Two years later, Ron died without a will. Sharon filed papers with the court asking to be the personal representative to administer Ron’s estate. She listed the real estate on the inventory of the estate’s assets as exempt from distribution. A widow, under Missouri law, is ordinarily entitled to a family allowance and half the assets of the estate after a spouse’s death.

Sean, who was Ron’s son, but not Sharon’s son, challenged Sharon’s classification of the real estate as outside the probate. He also argued that Sharon had forfeited her widow’s share of the estate, by operation of section 474.140 of the Missouri statutes, which says:

If any married person voluntarily leaves his or her spouse and goes away and continues with an adulterer or abandons his or her spouse without reasonable cause and continues to live separate and apart from his or her spouse for one whole year next preceding his or her death, or dwells with another in a state of adultery continuously, such spouse is forever barred from his or her inheritance rights, homestead allowance, exempt property or any statutory allowances from the estate of his or her spouse unless such spouse is voluntarily reconciled to him or her and resumes cohabitation with him or her.

The trial court agreed with Sean on one point. Sharon had left Ron and was living with another man, while still married to Ron, giving up her right to inherit from Ron’s estate.

But the trial judge said that Sharon didn’t have to share the real estate with Sean, because she owned it all by herself from the moment of Ron’s death. It wasn’t even an exempt asset of the estate.  The court of appeals affirmed the trial court in Estate of Ronald Steven Blair.

The deed that Sharon signed in 2005 was void, even though she may have intended to convey her interest in the property to Ron. Under Missouri law, when real estate is in the name of a  married couple, they own it as “tenants by the entireties.” This form of ownership cannot be broken except by death of a spouse, divorce or by a deed signed by both husband and wife.

With only Sharon’s signature on the deed, the tenancy by the entireties was not broken until Ron’s death, when the real estate automatically passed to Sharon. Her intent at the time she signed the deed was irrelevant, because one spouse does not have the power to convey property owned by both of them.

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About Harry Styron

I'm a lawyer who lives in Branson, Missouri, whose professional interests involve real estate, construction and local government.

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