STATE OF MICHIGAN
COURT OF APPEALS
In re Estate of ROBERT V. SEYMOUR, Deceased.
August 26, 2003
Lapeer Probate Court
LC No. 00-032299-DA
October 24, 2003
Before: Hoekstra, P.J., and Smolenski and Fort Hood, JJ.
Respondent Sylvia Sallan appeals as of right from a probate court order granting
petitioner Catherine Seymour a family allowance. We reverse and remand for proceedings
consistent with this opinion.
Petitioner and the decedent, Robert V. Seymour, were married in 1989, and no children
were born during the marriage.1 The couple purchased a parcel of property, cleared the land, and
built a home, three barns, and various outbuildings. The couple's goal was to start a business
raising, breeding, and training Arabian horses. They incorporated as Cee-Mour Farms in 1993.
Although petitioner ran the farm, decedent funded it. Petitioner alleged that the decedent
micromanaged the business to its detriment and arbitrarily decided what he would fund, or
reduced promised payment amounts.
Petitioner alleged that the decedent began experiencing health problems during the
marriage. The decedent refused to seek treatment, causing a breakdown in the marriage.
Consequently, petitioner filed for a divorce in an attempt to "shock" her husband into seeking the
Petitioner had grown children from a prior marriage, and Cee-Mour Farms employed her son.
medical attention that he needed. Before his death, the decedent began altering his financial
affairs.2 Petitioner alleged that she had been paid a monthly allowance of $20,000 to $30,000
during the divorce proceeding.3 Within a few months of the filing of the divorce action, the
decedent unexpectedly died. Petitioner chose not to contest the will, instead opting for her
elective share. Petitioner also sought $15,000 as a homestead allowance, $10,000 as an exempt
property allowance, and a family allowance of $20,000 a month.
Respondent, the decedent's sister and sole beneficiary of the decedent's estate, opposed
the continuation of spousal support in the form of a family allowance in light of the extensive
assets that petitioner received as the designated beneficiary on annuities, pension funds, and other
accounts. Respondent alleged that the assets that had passed to petitioner by means other than
the will were more than sufficient support resources, and that there was no need to further deplete
the estate and frustrate the decedent's intent.4 The probate court concluded that it was required,
by statute, to award petitioner a reasonable family allowance for maintenance. Further, the
probate court limited the information to be considered in awarding a family allowance.
Specifically, the probate court excluded respondent's discovery requests to determine petitioner's
other sources of income, support, and maintenance. The probate court also excluded from
consideration the costs of operating Cee-Mour Farms, concluding that it was a "hobby," not a
At the hearing regarding the family allowance, petitioner testified regarding her expenses.
Petitioner testified that her expenses included a gardener, housekeeper, and bookkeeper, and that
all three individuals were necessary for maintenance, excluding any work performed by them for
Cee-Mour Farms. Petitioner also testified regarding her expenses for basic necessities, such as
food, gasoline, propane, electricity, and telephone services. Where these expenses could not be
separated from the operation of the horse farm, estimates were given. Petitioner also testified
regarding the costs of supporting her mother, gifts, entertainment expenses, restaurant charges,
clothing, and travel fees. When respondent identified duplicated costs, petitioner explained that
any errors were inadvertent and resulted from her and a bookkeeper's attempt to separate the
operating and maintenance expenses for the household from the horse farm. The probate court
did not make any factual findings regarding necessary expenses or credibility determinations
Petitioner alleged that the financial alterations were in violation of a court order. We do not
have the benefit of the court file in the divorce proceedings. However, the allegations contained
in the divorce proceeding are not dispositive of the issues in this appeal.
We note that respondent alleges that the farm was an extravagant and wasteful venture where
substantial and unaccountable monies were paid by petitioner to her sister. It was further alleged
that decedent's refusal to continue to fund this venture prompted the petitioner to move out of the
marital home and file for divorce. The factual discrepancy underlying the divorce action is not
relevant to this appeal.
The decedent modified his will to account for the divorce proceedings and expressly stated that
nothing was left to petitioner because of the divorce proceedings.
regarding the nature of the requested expenses. Rather, the probate court concluded, without
explanation, that $8,000 a month constituted a reasonable family allowance.
Respondent alleges that the probate court erred in refusing to consider factors other than
petitioner's expenses when determining the family allowance pursuant to MCL 700.2403. We
agree. MCL 700.2403 provides:
(1) For their maintenance during the period of administration, a reasonable
family allowance is payable to the decedent's surviving spouse and minor children
whom the decedent was obligated to support, and children of the decedent or
another who were in fact being supported by the decedent, which allowance shall
not continue for longer than 1 year if the estate is inadequate to discharge allowed
claims. The family allowance may be paid in a lump sum or in periodic
installments. The family allowance is payable to the surviving spouse, if living,
for the use of the surviving spouse and minor and dependent children; otherwise
to the children or persons having their care and custody. If a minor child or
dependent child is not living with the surviving spouse, the allowance may be paid
partially to the child or to a fiduciary or other person having the child's care and
custody, and partially to the spouse, as their needs may appear.
(2) The family allowance is exempt from and has priority over all claims
except administration costs and expenses, reasonable funeral and burial expenses,
and the homestead allowance. The family allowance is not chargeable against a
benefit or share passing to the surviving spouse or children by the will of the
decedent, unless otherwise provided, by intestate succession, or by way of elective
share. The death of an individual entitled to family allowance terminates the right
to allowances not yet paid.
Issues of statutory construction present questions of law that are reviewed de novo. Cruz v State
Farm Mut Automobile Ins Co, 466 Mich 588, 594; 648 NW2d 591 (2002). The primary goal of
statutory interpretation is to give effect to the intent of the Legislature. In re MCI Telecom
Complaint, 460 Mich 396, 411; 596 NW2d 164 (1999). This determination is accomplished by
examining the plain language of the statute itself. Id. If the statutory language is unambiguous,
appellate courts presume that the Legislature intended the meaning plainly expressed and further
judicial construction is neither permitted nor required. DiBenedetto v West Shore Hosp, 461
Mich 394, 402; 605 NW2d 300 (2000).
If reasonable minds could differ regarding the meaning of a statute, judicial construction
is appropriate. Adrian School Dist v Michigan Pub School Employee Retirement Sys, 458 Mich
326, 332; 582 NW2d 767 (1998). Statutory language should be reasonably construed, keeping in
mind the purpose of the statute. Draprop Corp v Ann Arbor, 247 Mich App 410, 415; 636
NW2d 787 (2001). When construing a statute, a court must look at the object of the statute in
light of the harm it is designed to remedy and apply a reasonable construction that will best
accomplish the Legislature's purpose. Marquis v Hartford Accident & Indemnity (After Remand),
444 Mich 638, 644; 513 NW2d 799 (1994). The legislative history of an act may be examined to
ascertain the reason for the act and the meaning of its provisions. DeVormer v DeVormer, 240
Mich App 601, 607; 618 NW2d 39 (2000). Legislative history is valuable when it evidences an
intent to repudiate a judicial construction or considers alternatives in statutory language. In re
Certified Question, 468 Mich 109, 115 n 5; 659 NW2d 597 (2003). However, legislative history
is afforded little significance when it is not an official view of the legislators, and legislative
history may not be utilized to create an ambiguity where one does not otherwise exist. Id.
Additionally, while the official comments accompanying a uniform act may lack the force of law,
they are useful aids to interpretation and construction. Shurlow v Bonthuis, 456 Mich 730, 735 n
7; 576 NW2d 159 (1998); In re McKim Estate, 238 Mich App 453, 460 n 5; 606 NW2d 30
Historically, the family allowance was a statutory creation designed to "provide
sustenance for the family during the settlement of the estate, for the reason that the necessities of
support will not allow the delay of such provisions, because they are immediate." Moore v
Moore, 48 Mich 271, 273; 12 NW 180 (1882); See also In re Herbach Estate, 230 Mich App
276, 289-290; 583 NW2d 541 (1998). Determining the amount of the allowance is within the
sound discretion of the court,5 but the court should consider the needs of the widow6 and the
value of the estate, not merely the income from the estate. Montgomery v Trombley, 276 Mich
439, 441-442; 267 NW 648 (1936). The allowance made to a widow for her support during the
estate's settlement is for the sole benefit of the widow, and, therefore, the allowance cannot be
assigned. In re Service's Estate, 155 Mich 179, 185-187; 118 NW 948 (1908). The prior family
allowance provision also provided for a "reasonable family allowance" for a period of one year.7
The current family allowance provision, MCL 700.2403, retains the provision for awarding a
"reasonable family allowance" during the period of administration of the estate. The family
allowance may be paid in a lump sum or in periodic installments. Id.8 The family allowance
Although the amount of the allowance is reviewed for an abuse of discretion, factual findings
made by a probate court sitting without a jury are reviewed for clear error, In re Erickson Estate,
202 Mich App 329, 331; 508 NW2d 181 (1993), and the requirements for making factual
findings are set forth in MCR 2.517.
Although a family allowance is awarded for the benefit of a surviving spouse, minor children,
or supported children, in this case, the parties do not dispute that the family allowance is
applicable only to petitioner as the surviving spouse.
The prior statute, MCL 700.287, was repealed by 1998 PA 386, § 8101, effective April 1, 2000.
The principal modification made by MCL 700.2403 addresses the time frame for allocation of
the family allowance. MCL 700.287 provided that a family allowance could be continued from
time to time in a solvent estate beyond a period of one year on the basis of a showing of
necessity, but the family allowance was deemed an advancement from the estate against the
recipient. The current family allowance provision provides for an allowance "during the period
of administration," but limits the time frame to one year if the estate is inadequate to discharge
allowed claims. MCL 700.2403. The current statute does not contain an automatic advancement
provision unless provided for by intestate succession or by way of the elective share. MCL
determination may be made by the personal representative in a lump sum not to exceed $18,000.
MCL 700.2405. Thus, while the family allowance statute has been amended over time, the
reasonableness requirement has been retained, although the period of time of allocation of the
benefit has been modified. In re Certified Question, supra; DeVormer, supra.
In the present case, the parties dispute what factors may be considered in determining a
"reasonable" family allowance. The term "reasonable" is not defined in the statute. When a term
is not defined by statute, an appellate court may turn to dictionary definitions to construe the term
in accordance with its plain, ordinary, and generally accepted meaning. In re Certified Question,
supra. "Reasonable" is defined as: "agreeable to reason or sound judgment; logical" and "not
exceeding the limit prescribed by reason; not excessive." Random House Webster's Unabridged
Dictionary (2d ed 1998), p 1608. Additionally, prior versions of the family allowance statute
that contained the same reasonableness requirement considered the needs of the widow in
conjunction with the value of the estate, acknowledging that it was designed for the sole benefit
of the widow. Montgomery, supra; In re Service's Estate, supra.
Furthermore, we note that MCL 700.2403 is similar to the equivalent provision found in
the Uniform Probate Code, § 2-404, 8 ULA 141-142 (Revised 1990 Version). Section 2-404
provides that the surviving spouse is entitled to a reasonable allowance during the period of
administration. The official comment of this section acknowledges that the need of the surviving
spouse is contingent on the spouse's individual factors as well as the decedent's intent. The
official comment provides, in relevant part:
In determining the amount of the family allowance, account should be
taken of both the previous standard of living and the nature of other resources
available to the family to meet current living expenses until the estate can be
administered and assets distributed. While the death of the principal income
producer may necessitate some change in the standard of living, there must also be
a period of adjustment. If the surviving spouse has a substantial income, this may
be taken into account. Whether life insurance proceeds payable in a lump sum or
periodic installments were intended by the decedent to be used for the period of
adjustment or to be conserved as capital may be considered. A living trust may
provide the needed income without resorting to the probate estate.
Obviously, need is relative to the circumstances, and what is reasonable
must be decided on the basis of the facts of each individual case. Note, however,
that under the next section the personal representative may not determine an
allowance of more than $1500 per month for one year; a Court order would be
necessary if a greater allowance is reasonably necessary. [Id. at 142.]
Thus, the reasonableness requirement of the family allowance provision permits examination of
multiple factors, including the decedent's intent and the other resources available to the petitioner
to meet expenses that could include other allowances. Shurlow, supra. Furthermore, appellate
court decisions examining "reasonableness" requirements have concluded that reasonableness is
to be determined on the basis of all the relevant facts and circumstances of each individual case.
See Morris v Clawson Tank Co, 459 Mich 256, 272-274; 587 NW2d 253 (1998); In re Gaipa,
219 Mich App 80, 85-86; 555 NW2d 867 (1996). Accordingly, the probate court erred in failing
to consider all relevant facts and circumstances in determining the need for a family allowance by
merely reviewing petitioner's requested expenses. The probate court precluded consideration of
whether petitioner was generating income from other marital property, and of other discovery
regarding the "needs" of petitioner.9 Because the determination of a family allowance involves a
consideration of all relevant facts and circumstances, the probate court abused its discretion by
precluding discovery of petitioner's sources of income, support, and maintenance as requested in
interrogatories. See Linebaugh v Sheraton Michigan Corp, 198 Mich App 335, 343; 497 NW2d
Reversed and remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain
/s/ Joel P. Hoekstra
/s/ Michael R. Smolenski
/s/ Karen M. Fort Hood
The probate court also heard testimony regarding gifts, entertainment, and support of
petitioner's mother. The family allowance is a statutory creation designed to allow the
beneficiaries to meet immediate needs until the settlement of the estate, Moore, supra, and the
allowance to the widow is designed for the sole benefit of the widow. In re Service's Estate,
supra. It is unclear how the probate court arrived at the $8,000 a month family allowance
because it failed to make any findings of fact or conclusions of law regarding whether these
expenses were governed by the family allowance provision. In re Erickson Estate, supra.
Therefore, it is unknown what expenses were excluded in the reduction of petitioner's requested
family allowance. However, it is abundantly clear that the trial court failed to consider whether
petitioner had other available means or allowances to meet requested expenses when it limited
respondent's ability to discover and present this information. On remand, we presume that the
probate court will remedy the deficiencies in its announcement of an award, without more, to
delineate the expenses awarded within the confines of a permissible family allowance.
Because we have concluded that remand is required for redetermination of a reasonable family
allowance, we need not address respondent's challenge to the sufficiency of petitioner's proofs.