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On March 19, 2018, the Supreme Court heard argument in Sveen v. Melin, a case involving the relationship between Minnesota’s revocation-upon-divorce statute and the U.S. Constitution’s “Contracts clause,” which declares that no state may pass a law “impairing the Obligation of Contracts.”

In 2002, Minnesota amended its probate code to incorporate life insurance beneficiary designations into its revocation-upon-divorce statute. Mark Sveen purchased a life insurance policy in 1997, months before marrying Kaye Melin, who Sveen designated as the primary beneficiary on the policy. His two adult children, Ashley and Antone Sveen, were listed as contingent beneficiaries. Melin and Sveen divorced in 2007, but Sveen never removed Melin as the primary beneficiary of his life insurance policy. 

Both Melin and Sveen’s adult children sought to claim the insurance proceeds. In light of Minnesota’s extension of the revocation-upon-divorce statute to life insurance policies, Sveen’s insurance company sought clarification in federal district court regarding whether Melin should still be considered the primary beneficiary. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Sveens, applying the revocation-upon-divorce statute retroactively to remove Melin as a beneficiary. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit reversed that judgment, however, reasoning that retroactive application of the statute in these circumstances would violate the Contracts clause. The Supreme Court thereafter granted certiorari to consider that core issue: whether the application of a revocation-upon-divorce statute to a contract signed before the statute’s enactment violates the contracts clause. 

To discuss the case, we have Prof. James Ely, Professor of Law Emeritus at Vanderbilt University Law School.


As always, the Federalist Society takes no position on particular legal or public policy issues; all expressions of opinion are those of the speakers.