The Government’s Case for Fairness in Estate Administration

The Government's Case for Fairness in Estate Administration

Anne Heche didn’t repay a loan before she died. Now an ex wants her estate to pay up. What the law says on inheritance by “passive” or “active” spouses has always been a matter of some conjecture. This week the Supreme Court will answer one of those queries: When does a partner’s death stop an estate from paying back the loan that enabled him or her to buy the house?

The case, which has divided the Supreme Court and the country since John Roberts announced his nomination to the high court, tests the boundaries of the government’s power to regulate the terms under which estates pass into the hands of their heirs and of the protections of the due process clause in the 14th Amendment.

The term “due process” means more than a right to a speedy trial, and more than rights in the abstract. It means that the government’s actions must be reasonably related to a recognized state interest. The problem with the government’s rule that Heche’s estate couldn’t pay back the money she borrowed is that it doesn’t appear to the court to have been reasonably related to the state’s interest in ensuring that the debtors have access to their finances.

It is hard not to see the government’s argument as having been that the government has a right to impose its will on people’s finances to ensure fairness in administering the estate. The government, in its brief, points to a long and by now familiar history of rules preventing the heirs from profiting from inheritances. The argument, as the government sees it, is that because the debtors’ deaths were “passive” under federal rules, the government could not impose the same rule on the beneficiaries in this case.

The government’s briefs to the court, which are made available to justices on the court’s website, are a bit of a mixed bag. They offer an argument in favor of a rule that gives debtors the opportunity to repay loans that may have taken them to a higher income and in which they could have used the money to make payments on credit cards, and an argument against a rule protecting those debtors from inheriting a greater share of their parent’s property.

The argument for the rule that the government proposes was that people who are financially insecure by their own accounts may be unable to pay back the money they borrow from their partner or anyone, so that the partner could have

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