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What Is Your “Domicile” for Estate Planning Purposes?


Where you live at the time of the death plays a critical role in the administration of your probate estate. This is because your “domicile” normally determine what state’s law applies to the probate proceedings. For example, if Mary owned homes in Florida and South Carolina but lived full-time in her Florida house when she died, then Mary was domiciled in Florida for purposes of administering her estate. The South Carolina property would then be dealt with under that state’s laws in a secondary or ancillary probate administration.

Maryland Court Prevents Wife from Inheriting from Husband with Florida Property

Sometimes, however, a deceased individual’s domicile is not always clear. In a recent case from Maryland, In The Matter of Robert H. Watkins, Jr., an appellate court had to figure out whether a particular decedent was domiciled in that state of Florida for probate purposes. The answer to this question, in turn, affected the rights of the decedent’s spouse to claim a share of his probate estate.

Here is what happened. The decedent passed away in August 2014. The decedent’s adult daughter filed her father’s will with a Maryland probate court. The court admitted the will, which named the daughter as personal representative of the estate. The daughter then moved to open an ancillary probate to administer her father’s property in Florida.

The decedent’s surviving spouse objected to the Maryland probate. She insisted her husband died while domiciled in Florida, so that is where his primary estate existed. The Maryland personal representative–the decedent’s child from a prior marriage–insisted her father was domiciled in Maryland. She also asserted the surviving spouse’s marriage to the decedent was “procured by fraud, duress, and undue influence.”

Under Florida law, a surviving spouse is entitled to take an “elective share” from the deceased spouse’s estate. But a spouse is not entitled to this share if a court determines the marriage was the result of “fraud, duress, or undue influence,” as the personal representative alleged in this case. A Maryland trial court eventually sided with the personal representative. The court said the surviving spouse “took undue advantage of the Decedent’s vulnerability” following his previous wife’s death and “physically and emotionally dominated [him] to marry her.” Applying Florida law, the court then held the spouse was not entitled to the elective share.

On appeal, the spouse changed tactics. She did not challenge the trial court’s finding of undue influence, and she conceded her husband was “domiciled” in Maryland when he died. Instead, she argued the trial court lacked the authority to void a marriage for purposes of Florida law. And since Maryland has its own elective share rule, she was still entitled to a portion of her late husband’s estate.

The Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreed with the spouse on the first point: Florida’s elective share statute only applies to the “surviving spouse of a person who dies domiciled in Florida.” The spouse already conceded her husband was domiciled in Maryland.

That said, the appeals court said the surviving spouse was also banned from claiming an elective share under Maryland law. Maryland common law recognizes the “unclean hands” doctrine, which essentially prevents someone from profiting off their own “unlawful or inequitable conduct.” Since the spouse did not challenge the undue influence ruling on appeal, that “inequitable conduct” was still valid grounds to prevent her from making a claim against her husband’s estate.

Speak with a Florida Estate Planning Lawyer Today

If you live or own property in more than one state, it is a good idea to speak with a Fort Myers estate planning attorney about the best way to go about managing your affairs via a will or trust. Contact the Kuhn Law Firm, P.A., at 239-333-4529 today to schedule a free estate planning consultation.


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