Wife who abandoned husband forfeited spouse’s share of his estate

Living separate lives may be the key to some long-lasting marriages. But doing so could result in the forfeit of important interests, as a Missouri case shows.

The couple, in that case, Marilyn and John David Heill, married in 1968. In the 1990s, John started spending most of his time at his parents’ farm in another county.

He returned to the marital home to recover from a heart attack but went back to the farm in 1999 when he inherited it upon his mother’s death.

Marilyn stayed at the marital home with John’s consent, visiting him on occasion to discuss business or bring the grandchildren for a visit. After 2000, the two provided no domestic, financial or emotional support to one another, and Marilyn didn’t provide John with care through his bouts with prostate cancer, a heart attack, a broken hip and eventually Alzheimer’s disease. He moved to a nursing home before passing away in 2014. Neither spouse ever began proceedings to divorce or even to separate legally.

John’s will left his entire estate to his son. But as in most states, Missouri law allows a spouse to take an “elective share,” which is usually between 1/3 to 1/2 of the estate, in place of whatever he or she was left in the will.

John’s son argued that Marilyn “abandoned” the marriage in 2000 without reasonable cause by living separately from John. Accordingly, even though the son alleged no marital misconduct such as abuse or infidelity, the marriage was, for all meaningful purposes, over at the time of John’s death.

A trial judge agreed and an appeals court affirmed. So if you’re living separately from your spouse, it might also be a good idea to check with an attorney to find out what options you have to hold onto important rights and decide whether it might be best to end the marriage and divide the property accordingly.