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Supreme Court OK with Hoosier parents trying to control lives of adult children after death
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Supreme Court OK with Hoosier parents trying to control lives of adult children after death

Indiana Supreme Court justices

The justices of the Indiana Supreme Court are, from left, Mark Massa; Steven David; Chief Justice Loretta Rush; Christopher Goff; and Geoffrey Slaughter, a Crown Point native.

The Indiana Supreme Court has no problem with deceased parents using their wills or trusts to attempt to control the lives of their adult children, including whether or whom their children marry.

In a 5-0 ruling, the state's high court said nothing in Indiana law prohibits a will from conditioning or limiting a bequest based on certain behavior that must be undertaken, or avoided, by the beneficiary.

According to the Supreme Court, the only exception is for the spouse of the deceased, whose freedom to remarry specifically is protected by an Indiana statute and any will provision attempting to restrain a subsequent marriage of a widow or widower is void.

At the same time, the court noted no such restriction applies to trusts, an increasingly popular substitute for wills, and the terms of a trust are permitted to set marriage conditions for a spouse, an adult child, or anyone else set to benefit from the trust.

"In fact, the (Indiana) Trust Code does not prohibit conditions in restraint of marriage at all. What it prohibits is ignoring the settlor's intent (and where relevant, the trust's purpose) as manifested in the trust's plain terms," said Justice Geoffrey Slaughter, a Crown Point native, on behalf of the high court.

"Absent a clear indication from the Legislature that trusts are subject to a general prohibition against restraints of marriage, we reject such a view."

The question reached the Supreme Court after a Seymour, Indiana, woman died in 2016 and her trust included a provision awarding her adult son his share of her estate outright if he was unmarried at the time of her death, or requiring his share of her assets be maintained in a subtrust controlled by her adult daughter if her son still was married to his third wife.

The Indiana Court of Appeals last year interpreted those conditions as a restraint on marriage and therefore void.

However, the Supreme Court ruling vacated the 2-1 appellate decision, leaving intact the provisions of the mother's trust and setting a statewide standard for conditions or limitations that may be contained in wills and trusts, including permissible restraints on marriage.

"Under Indiana law, we disregard the settlor's intent only when the trust code clearly prohibits or restricts it," Slaughter said. "Here, (the son) points to nothing in the trust code that clearly prohibits or restricts the challenged provision, and we know of none."

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"Given this section's mandate to honor (the mother's) intent, we decline to invalidate the challenged provision or to restrict what the Legislature does not forbid."

Justice Christopher Goff said he agreed with the outcome in the case, but wrote a separate concurrence to highlight the potential "Pandora's Box of unintended and harmful consequences" that could follow the court's ruling if the General Assembly fails to tighten up the trust code.

In particular, Goff suggested a settlor might create a trust that conditions a benefit on the recipient not marrying a person from a different race, refusing to pay property taxes, or participating in another illegal act.

"Surely, the Legislature would not have intended such an unjust or absurd result," Goff said. "But if the court 'declines to invalidate the challenged provision' because our trust code does not prohibit it, why would it do anything different in those other situations?"

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