My mother-in-law left her  million life insurance policy to my brother-in-law, but her will says she wants him to share it with my husband.  What can we do?

My mother-in-law left her $1 million life insurance policy to my brother-in-law, but her will says she wants him to share it with my husband. What can we do?

Dear Quentin,

My husband and I took care of my mother-in-law for eight years. About five years ago, we gave up the house we were renting to save her because she couldn’t afford it and because she couldn’t live on her own anymore. We ended up taking out a loan to buy her house. He was not gifted, and we incur no debt from him; instead, we pay the value for which the house was appraised.

My mother-in-law passed away in February and the only thing she had for her two children was $1 million in life insurance. She added only my brother-in-law as the beneficiary, but stated in her will that he should share it with his brother. My brother-in-law says we inherited the house even though we paid full price and took care of it without his help.

Is there anything else we can do to get my husband what his mother wanted him to have?

bad luck in Tennessee

dear unlucky,

Your brother-in-law is on solid ground, legally if not ethically. In most cases, the designation of the beneficiary in a life insurance policy trumps a will. The first is a legal contract between the policyholder and the insurer. It’s a cautionary tale for anyone with a life insurance policy to change beneficiaries to align with their desires.

Your brother-in-law is likely to know full well that you bought your mother-in-law’s house and that any profit she made was deposited into your bank account and used to take care of it. It never hurts to put these transactions in black and white. Seeing this may – or may not – change your mind. “You got the house” gives him an easy, if not convincing, “out.”

However, it is possible to overturn a life insurance beneficiary designation if it is explicitly against the terms of a divorce decree. In the case “Sveen v. Melin” of the Supreme Court, the children of the deceased received the proceeds of the life insurance policy, not the ex-wife who was named as the beneficiary of the settlement.

The law assumed that what her ex-husband wanted after the divorce was incorrect. The ruling stated: “Thus, if a person designates a spouse as a life insurance beneficiary and then divorces, Minnesota law provides that the designation of the beneficiary is automatically revoked. At least twenty-eight other states have enacted similar revocation statutes after divorce.”

You and your husband are, on the other hand, probably out of luck and should trust your brother-in-law’s discretion. It looks like he’s unhappy with the way you handled the property purchase and/or knows the $1 million insurance policy belongs to him regardless of the will, and he’s already dreaming up plans to spend the money.

Heyyou You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical concerns related to the coronavirus at and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

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More from Quentin Fottrell:

‘I’ve felt like a stranger my whole life’: My father died intestate, leaving behind my stepmother and her 4 children. Do I have any rights to his estate?
• ‘He was in love with her’: My brother had a drinking problem and took his own life. He left $6 million to his ex-girlfriend who used to buy him alcohol
• ‘She had a will, but it was null and void’: My friend and her sister are fighting over her mother’s life insurance and bank account. Who should win?

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