Estate Planning and Divorce: What to Keep in Mind

Here at Clear Counsel Law Group, we make sure all of our clients know how important estate planning is. While it is daunting to plan for the unexpected, we have all too many probate cases where families disagree over what the deceased would have wanted, but without something in writing, there is only so much attorneys can do. For instance, if someone’s grandmother intended to leave one specific grandchild her home but never put anything in writing, it is unlikely that the home will end up with that grandchild when there are other heirs. With an estate plan in place, the house will end up in the right hands. But even a good solid estate planning might need to periodically updated.

For example, over half of all marriages sadly end in divorce. No one ever thinks it will happen to them, yet it does.

 

How Divorce Affects an Estate Plan

We have seen several cases where someone passes away at an intermediate stage of the divorce process, before the divorce becomes final. While it would seem rather obvious that a person divorcing their spouse would not want their estranged partner to inherit all of their assets, unless the divorce is final, a spouse is considered a spouse under the eyes of the law. Therefore, even with divorce papers on file, unless the ink is dry, the soon-to-be ex-spouse has all the same rights to inherit as a spouse who was not divorced.

In addition to divorce papers, when couples separate they are likely financially tied in even more ways than they realize. Situations often come across my desk where life insurance policies are designated to a future ex-spouse. Fortunately, life insurance designations are automatically revoked upon divorce in case someone forgets to amend. But even so, life insurance policies with revoked beneficiaries often go to a decedent’s estate, which might then end up in the hands of that same divorcing spouse. Not only that, but sometimes married couples with joint bank accounts forget to remove an ex-spouse who then drains the account upon death with no regard for children or other intended beneficiaries1)This is not an exhaustive list of examples. Some spouses never legally divorce but live for 30 years completely separate and apart, practically forgetting they were even married in the first place. But, the Nevada probate courts are crystal clear on the issue: if two people are legally married, the spouse inherits in the exact same manner as a spouse that never spent a day away from her partner. We have even had cases where a decedent “married” twice and the legal wife and the cohabitating wife were left to duke it out. What a mess this can cause, financially and emotionally!

 

Divorce and Incapacity: A Lesson from Recent Headlines

In addition to a divorcing spouse inadvertently inheriting an entire estate, what about a divorcing spouse who becomes incapacitated? This situation arose very publicly this month with “Keeping up with the Kardashians” star Lamar Odom. The former NBA player was found comatose and required someone to make medical decisions that he could not make while unconscious. Lamar was in the midst of a nearly-but-not-quite-final divorce from Khloe Kardashian. Because the divorce is not final, Khloe is the spouse for all intents and purposes, as if the couple were headings towards happily ever after. It is unlikely that a person facing an impending divorce would think to designate a medical power of attorney once they file for divorce, but this is important!

Strangely enough, the tabloids are reporting that Khloe and Lamar have decided to give their relationship another shot after Lamar’s near death experience. But, I do not suspect that this is the typical outcome. Although we never really anticipate this specific situation, someone whom you are getting divorced from is probably not the person you want making medical decisions on your behalf, much less inhering under your estate.

As estate planning attorneys, we regularly check in with clients to update their plans. Any new homes purchased, accounts acquired, children born, or even a new job with a 401k plan can warrant updating an estate plan. I mention to all estate planning clients that not only should they contact me for changes in assets and when they get divorced, but they should contact us the minute they decide to divorce so we can help them adjust their estate plan accordingly. In some situations, it is even appropriate to insert a divorce contingency in certain estate planning documents to make clear what should happen if it appears parties are headed towards divorce.

We can never plan for the unexpected, but we can certainly try. Contact our attorneys today for a free consultation to set up an estate plan, including a plan for whom should make decisions on your behalf if you ever become unable.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. This is not an exhaustive list of examples
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