Tidbits

Creedon v. Haynes: Lessons for Family Law and Estate Planning

Laura Marie Creedon v. Joseph E. Haynes, Sr.

16-P-184 Massachusetts Appeals Court 12/6/2016

Creedon v. Haynes is a case depending on the subtleties of the administrative process at the Probate and Family Court. The case shows that it is important for litigants to receive a final judgment on paper from a judge for contempt relating to a divorce agreement, and that a judge’s oral order is not good enough to serve as a binding order.

Beyond that, the issue that the parties were arguing over was the fact that the parties’ divorce agreement specified that the husband would name the couples’ three children as beneficiaries of his life insurance policy worth $100,000 through his job at the Lexington Fire Department. The wife brought a contempt motion when she discovered that the husband did not have the life insurance policy as his job did not even offer that benefit. The oral judgment that was at issue was the trial judge stating that the wife would have a claim of $100,000 against the husband’s estate at his death, but that claim could be offset by his holding a life insurance policy at his death and designating the $100,000 towards his ex-wife.

The children were all adults at the time of this case, which the father used to unsuccessfully claim that he did not need to follow through on the language from the separation agreement.

This case highlights the importance of several issues for both family law and estate planning attorneys:

  1. An attorney should confirm his or her client’s assets during a divorce so that there are no misrepresentations that will cause later problems. In this case there was no life insurance policy even though details of it were spelled out in the separation agreement.
  2. There should be follow up after the divorce decree takes effect to make sure that anything agreed to happens – this is true not only with beneficiary designations, but also issues ranging from health insurance to a new deed for the former marital property. An attempt to change the beneficiaries on a non-existent life insurance policy would have brought the problem to light many years earlier and allowed the parties to deal with the issue at that time.
  3. The language around future obligations should be carefully crafted. Oftentimes, life insurance policies are required in separation agreements for the other spouse to be able to continue taking care of minor children without child support money. In this case, the obligation in the separation agreement did not state that the life insurance obligation would end at any point – regardless of the children’s ages or if the husband were to lose the (imagined) life insurance benefit if he stopped working for the Lexington Fire Department.
  4. Estate planning attorneys need to review separation agreements of any divorced clients when working with them in order to give sound advice that does not go against any of their obligations through a separation agreement. Knowing that there is a requirement for certain beneficiaries on a specific policy can change the advice that will be given.

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