In re Erwin Estate (Opinion - Leave Granted)Annotate this Case
The decedent, James Erwin, Sr., had six children from a previous marriage when he married appellee Maggie Erwin in 1968. James and Maggie had 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 assistance for Maggie and for their children. But the two continued to live apart. There was 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. James made it clear that Maggie was still his wife and that they had an ongoing relationship.
James died intestate in 2012. James and Maggie had never filed for divorce nor had they otherwise formally separated. In the eyes of the law, they remained married until the time of James’s passing. 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. The probate court proceedings were contentious from the outset. Beatrice asked the probate court to determine whether Maggie was a surviving spouse in accordance with Estates and Protected Individuals Code (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, and she would not be entitled to a share of James’s estate. The Court of Appeals concluded that “willful absence for the purposes of the EPIC was 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.” The issues this case presented for the Michigan Supreme Court's review were both ones of first impression: (1) whether the term “willfully absent” was defined exclusively by physical separation, or whether it included consideration of the emotional bonds and connections between spouses; and (2) whether MCL 700.2801(2)(e)(i) required proof that a spouse intends to abandon his or her marital rights. The Supreme Court held the appellate court correctly concluded Maggie was not "willfully absent" from James in the years leading up to his death, and affirmed.