Summary: Your estate plan reflects the legacy you want to leave behind, so each life change you experience will likely impact your plan. If you are going through divorce, you should certainly take great care to update each element of your estate plan, including your will, trusts, powers of attorney, living will and death beneficiary accounts, to ensure that your current goals and objectives will be realized when you die.
Divorce is a stressful period of transition and change for most people. While there are many things on which you will need to expend your attention during this challenging time, you should not forget that your estate plan also requires addressing now that you’ve experienced this life change.
One of the first things you will want to do is update your will. Generally, your will names your spouse by name, so if you die and your will leaves a sizable inheritance to “John Doe” or “Jane Doe,” then your executor (or the trustee of your trust) and the courts will be obliged to follow this instruction, even if this person is your ex-spouse. For many people, such an outcome might be especially frustrating and painful, so you should deal with updating your will promptly.
You will also need to go through any asset or account that has a death beneficiary designation on it to remove your ex. Recent court cases have ruled that, even if you divorce your ex and update your will, your ex will still receive the money from your life insurance or retirement account if you do not update the paperwork on those accounts. The single determining factor regarding who gets your transfer-on-death or pay-on-death accounts is the name on that account’s death beneficiary designation form, so it is vital that you make sure you update each of these accounts.
Additionally, you’ll want to tend to your powers of attorney and living will. Chances are, you do not want your ex managing your financial affairs or making healthcare decisions (including end-of-life decisions) for you after you’re divorced. Executing new powers of attorney and a new living will is often a relatively quick and straightforward process.
If you have a living trust, you should investigate updating this part of your estate plan, as well. For many people, their spouses may not only be beneficiaries of their trusts, but trustees, as well. A capable estate planning attorney can assist you with making the changes your trust needs to address your divorce.
Finally, you do not have to wait until your divorce is finalized in order to begin updating your estate plan. Even if you anticipate that your divorce may take several months or years to complete, you can (and should) start working on updating your estate plan right away. Keep in mind, though, that the law in every state says that you cannot disinherit your spouse so, even if your preference is to leave your ex nothing, you will not be able to make that happen until the divorce is final.