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In re Estate of Cliffman

Supreme Court of Michigan

April 17, 2017

RICHARD D. PERSINGER, Personal Representative of the Estate of GORDON JOHN CLIFFMAN, BETTY WOODWYK, and VIRGINIA WILSON, Appellees. COA 321174

         Allegan Probate Ct: 13-058358-DE

          Stephen J. Markman, Chief Justice, Robert P. Young, Jr., Brian K. Zahra, Bridget M. McCormack, David F. Viviano, Richard H. Bernstein, Joan L. Larsen, Justices.


         On December 8, 2016, the Court heard oral argument on the application for leave to appeal the June 9, 2015 judgment of the Court of Appeals. On order of the Court, the application is again considered, MCR 7.305(H)(1), and it is DENIED, there being no majority in favor of granting leave to appeal or taking other action.

          Young, J. (dissenting).

         I respectfully dissent and write to explain why I would reverse the decision rendered by the Court of Appeals panel below.

         The Wrongful Death Act (WDA) creates a cause of action for injury and death caused by neglect or wrongful act, and it defines the persons who may collect a share of the proceeds of the claim.[1] At issue in this case is whether children of a decedent's predeceased spouse, Betty Carter, are eligible to share in the proceeds of a WDA claim. The appellants in this matter are the stepsons of the decedent, Gordon Cliffman. They claim to be entitled to a share of the WDA proceeds because their mother, Betty Carter, had been married to Cliffman, on whose behalf a WDA lawsuit had been filed and settled. The Court of Appeals held that the term "spouse" in the statutory phrase "children of the deceased's spouse" referred only to an individual who was married at the time of injury or death. According to the Court of Appeals, Cliffman was not married at the time of his death because his wife had predeceased him, which terminated the marriage. I disagree with this conclusion. I would hold instead, on the basis of the plain language of the statutory text, that children of a predeceased spouse of the decedent may recover a portion of the proceeds from a WDA claim. Therefore, I would reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, reverse the trial court's order granting appellees' petition, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         In 1976, Gordon Cliffman married Betty Carter. The two conceived no children together, but at the time they married, Betty had six biological children from a previous marriage. Cliffman never adopted these children, but he apparently raised them as his own. Betty died in 1996. Cliffman never remarried and fathered no biological children during his life.

         On September 22, 2012, Cliffman was badly injured in an automobile accident, eventually succumbing to his injuries on October 2, 2012.[2] He died intestate. Cliffman's estate was opened in the Ottawa County Probate Court, and Phillip Carter, one of Betty's biological sons, was appointed the personal representative of Cliffman's estate.[3] After it was discovered that the estate had been opened in the wrong county, [4] the probate proceedings were transferred to the Allegan County Probate Court, the probate court for the county in which Cliffman actually resided.

         As personal representative of the estate, Phillip negotiated a WDA settlement related to the accident that caused Cliffman's death. Under the agreement, the estate received $50, 000 in settlement of a third-party liability claim with the at-fault driver's insurance company. Phillip also negotiated a $250, 000 settlement with Cliffman's insurance company of the estate's under-insured motorist coverage claim. The Allegan County Probate Court approved the gross settlement amount of $300, 000. From this pot, the court approved payment of $100, 000 in attorney fees, and it allocated $40, 000 to the probate estate for Cliffman's conscious pain and suffering, as required by statute.[5] Because Cliffman died intestate, the portion of the settlement related to conscious pain and suffering was distributed to his heirs at law, [6] which did not include his four stepsons.[7] Each of the stepsons claimed a share in the remaining wrongful death settlement of $160, 000. Appellees, Cliffman's sisters, objected to the stepsons' claims, and the trial court held, on the basis of In re Combs Estate, [8] that the stepsons had no right to wrongful death proceeds under the WDA.

         The stepsons appealed the trial court's determination in the Court of Appeals. The Court affirmed the probate court in an unpublished per curiam opinion.[9] Pertinent to the sole issue before us, the panel reasoned:

[T]he issue of whether a decedent's stepchildren may share in a recovery from a wrongful-death settlement, when their parent who was married to the decedent has predeceased the decedent, was unequivocally settled by this Court in In re Combs Estate. There, this Court considered the plain language of MCL 600.2922(3)(b) and succinctly explained that the term "spouse" refers to "a married person." As a matter of law, it is well-settled in Michigan that the death of a spouse terminates a marriage. Given that death terminates a marriage, upon one party's death, the individuals are no longer married and the surviving individual no longer has a "spouse" within the meaning of MCL 600.2922(3)(b). As a result, stepchildren are not entitled to damages under MCL 600.2922(3)(b) when their parent, who was married to the decedent, has predeceased the decedent because these children are not "children of the deceased's spouse."[10]

         The stepsons sought leave to appeal the Court of Appeals' decision in this Court. In lieu of granting leave to appeal, this Court granted oral argument on the application to determine whether to grant leave or take other action.[11]


         Issues of statutory construction are reviewed de novo.[12] "An anchoring rule of jurisprudence, and the foremost rule of statutory construction, is that courts are to effect the intent of the Legislature."[13] This Court also examines the statute as a whole, reading individual words and phrases in the context of the entire legislative scheme.[14] If the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, "we assume that the Legislature intended its plain meaning and we enforce the statute as written."[15]

         III. ANALYSIS

         The question posed by this case is whether the term "the deceased's spouse" means "the deceased's [surviving] spouse." In Combs, the decision on which the panel below relied, the Court of Appeals held that "[a] 'spouse' is a married person" and that a marriage ends upon the death of either spouse.[16] But this construction of the statute would render entire portions of MCL 600.2922(3) nugatory. If "spouse" were to mean only a married person and marriage truly ends upon death, there would never be a "spouse" in the WDA context because a WDA claim only arises upon someone's death. This would mean that even a living spouse could not recover; the living individual would not be a "spouse" under the WDA because the marriage ended with his or her partner's wrongful death. Instead, the Court of Appeals implicitly read words into the statute, interpreting it to mean "[t]he children of the deceased's [surviving] spouse" or "[t]he children of the deceased's spouse [at the time of the deceased's death]." I would not give the term "spouse" such a limited construction, as that construction is clearly contrary to the Legislature's intent.

         The WDA governs actions for damages arising from injuries that result in death. It provides that if the conduct that caused death would have entitled the decedent to maintain a cause of action for damages had he or she lived, that cause of action survives the death of the decedent and can be maintained by the decedent's estate through a duly appointed personal representative.[17] The statute delineates specific persons who may be entitled to benefits.[18] The issue before the Court in this case requires us to determine the meaning of the phrase "[t]he children of the deceased's spouse" in MCL 600.2922(3). This subsection provides, in pertinent part:

. . . [T]he person or persons who may be entitled to damages under this section shall be limited to any of the following who suffer damages and survive the deceased:
(a) The deceased's spouse, children, descendants, parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, and, if none of these persons survive the deceased, then those persons to whom the estate of the deceased would pass under the laws of intestate succession determined as of the date of death of the deceased.
(b) The children of the deceased's spouse.[19]

         The decedent's stepsons claim a right to WDA proceeds based on MCL 600.2922(3)(b). When the language in MCL 600.2922(3) is considered in its entirety, the subsection provides that "[t]he children of the deceased's spouse" "may be entitled to damages" if they "suffer damages and survive the deceased."[20] It is an undisputed fact that the stepsons are Betty's natural children; the parties dispute only whether Betty could be considered Cliffman's "spouse" under the WDA, and thus, whether the stepsons are "children of the deceased's spouse."

         The WDA does not define "spouse." Therefore, this Court must give the undefined statutory term its plain and ordinary meaning. We may consult a dictionary to ascertain the common meaning of a word.[21] A common word or phrase is to be determined by consulting a lay dictionary, [22] while legal terms of art must be construed according to their peculiar and appropriate meaning.[23] If the definitions of a term are consistent in both lay and legal dictionaries, it is unnecessary for a Court to determine whether the term or phrase is a term of art.[24]

         The American Heritage Dictionary (2d College ed) defines "spouse" as "[a] marriage partner; husband or wife."[25] Black's Law Dictionary (5th ed) defines "spouse" as simply "[o]ne's wife or husband."[26] This definition has not changed substantially over time. A more modern dictionary copyrighted in 2014, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed), defines "spouse" as "betrothed man, groom & . . . betrothed woman, bride[.]"[27] Black's Fifth Edition also has a separate definition for "surviving spouse, " which is "[t]he spouse who outlives the other spouse. Term commonly found in statutes dealing with probate, administration of estates and estate and inheritance taxes." Similarly, Black's Law Dictionary (6th ed), copyrighted in 1990, shortly after the 1985 amendment of the WDA, defines "spouse" as "[o]ne's husband or wife, and 'surviving spouse' is one of a married pair who outlive[s] the other." This suggests that the term "spouse, " absent the adjective "surviving, " should also include deceased persons. In short, the ordinary meaning of the term "spouse" does not have an inherent temporal definition relevant to this dispute. And, it is my conclusion that the statutory text and context indicate that "spouse" as used in the WDA is also not temporally limited.

         MCL 600.2922(3)(b) is not the only provision of the WDA that uses the term "the deceased's spouse." Specifically, the Legislature refers to "the deceased's spouse" in MCL 600.2922(3)(a), when it describes another set of "persons who may be entitled" to recover WDA damages. This Court has consistently held that we must read ...

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