Got To Get It In Writing

Pellie was in a long term relationship with Tony that lasted over 40 years. They never married. Pellie became Tony’s caretaker when his health began to fail. Tony died in 2015. Pellie had received about $300,000 in assets from Tony up to and after his death. But Pellie believed she was entitled to much, much more. After Tony’s death, Pellie filed a claim against Tony’s trust for over $2,700,000 based upon Tony’s purported promises to take care of her. The trustee disallowed the claim. Pellie sued the trust in probate court, claiming that she and Tony had an agreement that he would take care of her after his death.

At the trial, the evidence showed that over the course of their relationship, Tony had often told here that he wanted her to take care of him and in return he would take care of her needs. Tony had verbally told Pellie that she would share in his estate. Tony’s estate plan did provide some stock and other assets to Pellie, including four bank accounts owned jointly with Pellie.

The county probate court dismissed Pellie’s lawsuit. The probate court reasoned that Tony’s promises were, in effect, a contract to make a will, and since it wasn’t in writing, the “agreement” wasn’t enforceable. Pellie appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the probate court decision.

Under Michigan law, a contract to make a will or devise, not to revoke a will or devise, or to die without a will (intestate) may only be established by either: a) provisions in a will stating the material terms of the contract; b) an express reference in a will to such a contract with extrinsic evidence proving the terms of the contract; or c) a writing signed by the deceased establishing the contract.

A party seeking to enforce such a contract must prove an actual express agreement and not merely a statement of intentions. Since Pellie could not produce a writing evidencing Tony’s agreement to provide her financial security after his death or to compensate her for caretaking services, she could not prevail.

It is pretty clear from the evidence that Tony made promises of care and support to Pellie. We don’t know why Tony didn’t adjust his estate plan to fulfill those promises; Nor do we know to whom Tony left the bulk of his assets.

Their’s was a 40 year relationship. However, without the benefit of marriage or a some type of written agreement, Pellie didn’t have a leg to stand on. Purely moral obligations are not enforceable. Had they been married, Pellie may have had claims to Tony’s assets.

When it comes to the distribution of a deceased person’s assets, oral promises or intentions aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. The moral of this story is that if you are in a relationship with another — without the benefit of marriage — you need to make sure to get any promises of financial support or security from your partner in writing.

The case is Norton-Cantrell v Anthony Bzura Trust Agreement.

You can read the Court of Appeals decision here.