Court considers: When is a spouse a spouse?

By Lee Dryden
BridgeTower Media Newswires
DETROIT — The Michigan Supreme Court is weighing whether stepchildren can make a claim under the Wrongful Death Act when the natural parent died before the stepparent.

The high court heard oral arguments last month for In re Cliffman Estate, which stems from the 2012 death of John Gordon Cliffman in a car accident. His wife, Betty Carter, died in 1996. This case is centered on whether Carter’s sons are entitled to a share of the proceeds from the wrongful-death settlement. The Allegan County Probate Court held that the sons are not entitled to any proceeds because their mother died before Cliffman. The Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court in an unpublished decision.

Much of the discussion before the justices by the Holland-based lawyers involved whether a spouse remains a spouse by definition after death.
Kenneth A. Puzycki, who represents Cliffman’s four stepsons, said spouse can refer to surviving or deceased spouses.

“Prior statutes, other statutes and certainly the legislative history in this case all point to the fact that the Legislature did not want to limit the Wrongful Death Act to children of a decedent’s surviving spouse,” he told the court.

Kenneth B. Breese, attorney for Cliffman’s sisters, argued that courts shouldn’t expand the range of people who can make claims for damages in such cases.

“If the stepchildren’s mother has predeceased, then (the stepchildren) simply are not entitled because there is no relationship there anymore,” he said.

The case

In a June 2015 unpublished Court of Appeals opinion, In re Cliffman Estate, the court rejected the appellants’ claim that the stepchildren are “entitled to share in the wrongful-death settlement proceeds because, under MCL 600.2922(3)(b), when there has been a settlement of a wrongful death claim, ‘[t]he children of the deceased’s spouse’ may be entitled to a share in the recovery if they suffered damages and survived the deceased.”

“This argument is plainly without merit, however, because the issue of whether a decedent’s stepchildren may share in a recovery from a wrongful-death settlement, when their parent who was married to the decedent has predeceased the decedent, was unequivocally settled by this Court in In re Combs Estate, 257 Mich App at 625,” the opinion stated. “There, this Court considered the plain language of MCL 600.2922(3)(b) and succinctly explained that the term ‘spouse’ refers to ‘a married person.’

“As a matter of law, it is well-settled in Michigan that the death of a spouse terminates a marriage.

“It follows that, in this case, appellants are not entitled to a share in the wrongful-death settlement proceeds because their mother predeceased Cliffman in 1996, meaning that, at the time of his death in 2012, Cliffman had no ‘spouse’ and thus there are no spouse’s children entitled to recovery under MCL 600.2922(3)(b).”

The panel, which included Judges Joel P. Hoekstra, Peter D. O’Connell and Christopher M. Murray in a per curiam opinion, disagreed with the appellants’ claim that the 2003 Combs case was wrongly decided.

Appellants’ argument

Puzycki said this case “turns on how to determine the plain meaning of spouse in the context of the wrongful-death statute.”

In finding that the plain meaning of spouse was limited to a living spouse, the Combs court committed two errors that should be reversed — failing to consider the context of the statute and failing to appreciate the varied ways in which the word, spouse, is used, Puzycki said.
“The court in Combs should have looked beyond the dictionary definition,” he said.

While widows and widowers are routinely referred to as surviving spouses, spouse can be used without modifiers to refer to the deceased, Puzycki said.

He cited the Michigan Supreme Court’s use of corpus linguistics, which involves using a database to compare how words are used in various contexts within text.

Puzycki said such a search confirmed that spouse is not only used to describe the living.

“Those search results provide objective, quantitative and conclusive evidence that we do use spouse to refer to unmarried individuals, including deceased people,” he said.

In 1985, the Legislature amended the Wrongful Death Act to remove “surviving” in front of spouse, which Puzycki cited as proof that lawmakers didn’t want to limit potential claimants to be children of the decedent’s surviving spouse.

“This case is not about who gets the money. It’s about who gets the opportunity to file a claim for the money,” he said, adding that claimants must prove they lost a loving relationship with the decedent.

Appellees’ argument

Breese called the situation a “solution in search of a problem.”

Stepchildren could be named as beneficiaries via a will, he said.

“It’s easily enough done to resolve this problem in any case because Michigan does not have a very high standard with regard to making a will,” Breese said. “I would argue that this isn’t a problem.”

Breese noted that lawmakers must be aware of the impact of Combs and haven’t seen fit to take any action to change it.

Reading too much into the statute could create a result contrary to a decedent’s wishes, Breese said.

“What about the situation where the decedent was silent, didn’t make a will, didn’t make a trust because he didn’t want to?” he asked.

He described spouse as a “relationship word.”

“You may have a spiritual relationship with someone when they’ve passed away but you certainly don’t have a legal relationship with them anymore,” Breese said. “I would argue that under Michigan law once the spouse has passed away there is no relationship and therefore the plain reading of ‘children of the spouse’ would mean that they aren’t available to claim.”

There is no obligation under the law to provide financial support to stepchildren, Breese said.

Breese added that there is a “whole body of law in family law and we have a whole body of law in the law of damages and what this is doing is clashing up against those established bodies of law.”