Death of Husband Ends Wife’s Right To Spousal Maintenance

Walter and Geraldine Brown had filed for divorce before first Mr. Brown and then Mrs. Brown became incapacitated. When guardianship proceedings were initiated for both of them, the divorce proceeding was simply dismissed.

Mr. and Mrs. Brown lived in Indiana, where the language of guardianship is a little different from Arizona. What Arizonans would call a conservator is referred to as a “guardian of the estate” in Indiana. Two separate banks were appointed as guardians of Mr. and Mrs. Brown’s respective estates.

During the first months of the divorce action Mr. Brown had been ordered to pay spousal maintenance (better known as alimony) to his wife. After the dismissal of the divorce the bank handling Mrs. Brown’s estate asked the probate court to order the bank responsible for Mr. Brown’s estate to continue to make monthly payments. Mr. Brown was ordered to pay $1,600 per month to Mrs. Brown’s guardian.

Mr. Brown had been married before, and he had two sons from that marriage. Mrs. Brown had no children. Mr. Brown’s will left one-third of his personal property and a life estate in one-third of his real estate to his wife, and the balance of his estate to his two sons.

Mr. Brown died shortly after the spousal maintenance award was entered. His sons filed a probate proceeding, divided the estate in accordance with his will and began the process of closing the estate.

At that point Mrs. Brown’s guardian filed a claim against the estate for spousal maintenance that might be due for the rest of her life. After a hearing the probate court agreed and, considering Mrs. Brown’s life expectancy of 13.9 years, set the amount due from Mr. Brown’s estate at just over $160,000.

Mr. Brown’s sons appealed the judgment. Mrs. Brown’s guardian pointed out the Indiana statute (Arizona has a similar law) that allows child support payments to be reduced to a lump-sum claim against a deceased parent’s estate. In these circumstances, argued Mrs. Brown’s guardian, the court should make a similar calculation for spousal maintenance.

The Indiana Court of Appeals disagreed. In reversing the award the Court noted that there is no statute authorizing such a calculation for surviving spouses, and that the state legislature presumably could have created such a claim if legislators thought it necessary. Mrs. Brown’s spousal maintenance award, however, ended with her husband’s death. Estate of Brown v. Estate of Brown, October 2, 2002.

Although Arizona uses “conservator” rather than “guardian of the estate,” the laws of the two states are similar in other respects. The same result should be expected in Arizona, especially where no divorce proceedings have been finalized.

©2021 Fleming & Curti, PLC