With a plot line straight out of a soap opera or a Lifetime movie, the recent Connecticut case involving Dennis Dix’s will and the subsequent battle between his wife and children highlights some interesting points in Connecticut law, and is a lesson in “why it is better to hire a lawyer to handle your will than to try to do it on your own.”
Dix v. Dix et al involves a will downloaded from the “Willmaker 6” computer program and executed at Foxwoods Casino in 2001. In his will, Mr. Dix left his “wife, Kathleen Ann Dix (nee Hogan) who has abandoned me, the sum of $5.00.” He then provided, “(i)f there is some statutory or other regulatory mandate, which requires me to leave her a larger minimal amount, this sum of $5.00 may be begrudgingly increased to meet the minimum requirements.” (Dix v. Dix et al, No. CV136019033, 2015 WL 897581 (2015)).
Mr. Dix also left one son “with whom I have not spoken for at least 5 years,” only $5.00, and — other than leaving modest cash gifts to his grandson and “favorite brother-in-law” — bequeathed the majority of his estate to his other two children.
Dennis Dix passed away nine years later. Unsurprisingly, his $5.00 cash bequest did not go over well with his wife. It wasn’t long before Mrs. Dix contested the will in Probate Court.
In her will contest, Mrs. Dix raised several objections. She argued that some of the clauses the will contained were confusing and in conflict with each other.
Also among Mrs. Dix’s objections was that the will was signed at Foxwoods. This is admittedly unusual, but it is not illegal, as long as the will is otherwise valid. In this case, the fact that the will was signed at a casino was not enough to convince the probate court to invalidate Mr. Dix’s will.
Another of Mrs. Dix’s claims fell under General Statutes § 45a–436, Connecticut’s spousal election law, which allows a disinherited spouse to collect one-third of the deceased spouse’s assets irrespective of what is outlined in the will.
“There is no Connecticut statute that requires a spouse to leave any set amount, or any amount at all, to his surviving spouse.” However, Connecticut’s spousal election law allows surviving spouse to claim “a life estate of one-third in value of all the property passing under the will, real and personal, legally or equitably owned by the deceased spouse at the time of [his] death …” provided that the “surviving spouse makes a timely written election to take her statutory share in lieu of any devise or bequest to her in the will.” Dix v. Dix et al., No. CV136019033.
The probate court found no merit in this claim either, as Mrs. Dix did not file her claim for the spousal share within the necessary 150 days from the date that the probate court appointed the first fiduciary. (The fiduciary is commonly the will’s executor.)
The law has changed since Mrs. Dix filed her case. The 150–day period now begins to run with the mailing of the decree admitting the will to probate. Public Act 13–81, § 6. As a result, now a spousal share claim must be filed 150 days from the date of a will’s admission into probate.
Mrs. Dix appealed the Probate Court ruling to Superior Court, arguing that the Court should “[d]eclare the spousal election statute unconstitutional as applied in this case, where the 150–day election period expired prior to the will having been admitted to probate, thereby depriving Kathleen Dix of her property rights.” “She accuse[d] the Probate Court of failing to protect her right to a statutory share and, by language in its decision admitting the will to probate, lulling her into believing that her husband had provided for her in his will.” Dix v. Dix et al., No. CV136019033.
Judge Shortall was not convinced.
“Until 2013 a surviving spouse had to file an election to take the share of her husband’s estate granted her by § 45a–436 within 150 days of the appointment of the first fiduciary for the estate. In this case the first fiduciary was appointed on April 7, 2010. Thus, the plaintiff’s election to take her statutory share had to be filed by September 5, 2010. An election submitted on July 6, 2012 is too late by far.” Dix v. Dix et al., No. CV136019033.
As to the rest of Mrs. Dix’s arguments, Judge Shortall also was not convinced.
“To construe the will so as to make Kathleen Dix an heir to any portion of Dennis Dix’s estate in excess of the five dollars he left her would fly in the face of his evident intent and violate the first principle of will construction.” Dix v. Dix et al., No. CV136019033.
Although some of the portions of the will might have been confusing, ultimately both the Probate and Superior Court were convinced that Mr. Dix made his intent to disinherit his wife very clear. That said, according to Attorney Bridget Gallagher, the lawyer who represented Mr. Dix’s children who inherited, “this case illustrates why it is better to hire a lawyer to handle your will than to try to do it on your own. . . . . Dennis Dix’s decision to save money by using the will-creation software ended up costing his estate more due to the lengthy probate battle.” Not only did the will contest create a significant financial burden for the estate, but one can’t help but imagine the emotional toll it took on his family.
To help ensure your wishes are clearly memorialized in a way that that makes it most likely that they will be efficiently carried out, consider having your will and related estate planning documents drafted by an attorney versed in trusts, estates and probate law, who will take the time to learn about you, your intentions, and any relevant particulars about your proposed executor and beneficiaries. A lawyer may be able to flag issues and provide guidance regarding some of your bequests.