The Rights of a Surviving Spouse
Massachusetts SUPERIOR Court Allows Services for Value Claim MADE BY A Surviving Spouse
A Middlesex County Superior Court judge has allowed a claim under a quantum meruit or "value for services" theory by a surviving spouse against the estate of her decedent husband. In Rostanzo v. Rostanzo, the plaintiff is asserting an oral agreement existed to leave Poland and move to the United States, marry the decedent, Stephen Rostanzo, and take care of him. The court held that Massachusetts allows contracts between spouses and that the claim was not barred in Superior Court despite any decisions made in Probate Court regarding Mr. Rostanzo's will or a prenuptial agreement entered into by the parties. See Middlesex County Superior Court Docket: 06-0265.
Mrs. Rostanzo was married to the decedent from January 28, 2002 until his death on January 23, 2005. Prior to their marriage, Mrs. Rostanzo lived in Poland and was hesitant to move to the United States. She claimed the decedent made an oral promise that if she moved to the United States she would inherit a substantial portion of his assets. Mrs. Rostanzo did make the trip and the two executed a prenuptial agreement on January 22, 2002. The decedent also executed a will on that same day. The Probate Court voided the prenuptial agreement but allowed the will.
Mrs. Rostanzo objected because the will provided her with a bequest of $120,000, which she contends is less than what she should have received under the oral agreement. As such, she pursued a claim of quantum meruit in Superior Court asserting her inheritance under the will violated the oral agreement and she did not receive the fair market value for services provided. These services included cooking, cleaning, and providing assistance with the household bills.
The Court stated that under Massachusetts law an oral promise to leave property in a will is not enforceable. But, it noted that statutory and case law suggests that a widow may collect under the quantum meruit theory. The authority for this conclusion was primarily based on Slawsby v. Slawsby, 33 Mass. App. Ct. 465 (1992), which allowed a family member that was entitled to a statutory share of an estate to sue under the same theory.
Essentially, that case allowed a son that had been omitted from his father's will to collect against the estate under quantum meruit. Furthermore, the court did not preclude the son from collecting under this theory because he also had a remedy under the omitted child statute, M.G.L. c. 191 § 20. Therefore, the Court refused to preclude Mrs. Rostanzo's equity claim because of her statutory spousal share remedy.
Because the relief sought is based on contract law, the court noted that M.G.L. c. 209 § 2 overturned the common law rule prohibiting spouses from contracting with each other. As such, the parties were free to enter an oral contract and the alleged contract is not contrary to public policy.
Furthermore, the court concluded that the existence of the valid will filed in Probate Court did not defeat her claim by collateral estoppel because the oral agreement constituted an independent enforceable contract separate from any action concerning the will itself.
It's important to note that the Court merely ruled that Mrs. Rostanzo was not precluded from seeking relief based on a theory of quantum meruit. It did not rule that an oral contract between the parties even existed, but only that if one does she may be entitled to relief. Furthermore, the Court did not suggest that her services had value or that she had not already been reasonably compensated, instead leaving such questions for a jury to determine.
Mrs. Rostanzo's quantum meruuit claim ultimately failed on appeal, with the Appeals Court ruling that the alleged oral agreement violated the statute of frauds. Regardless, the lower court's ruling bestows upon aggrieved spouses an additional basis for challenging a bequest in addition to the spousal share if the will is found to be valid.