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Estate planning changes to consider after the end of your marriage

by Legacy Plan
Updated March 28, 2024

When a significant life event such as a divorce occurs, it brings about profound changes, both personally and financially. These changes can have a substantial impact on your future plans, making the revision of your estate plan not just advisable but essential. The aftermath of a divorce often requires a comprehensive reevaluation of how your assets are managed and distributed, ensuring that your estate plan aligns with your new circumstances and reflects your current wishes and needs.

Estate planning is not a static process. Instead, it's dynamic and evolves as your life does. Divorce, in particular, demands a thorough re-evaluation of your estate plan. The reason is twofold: first, divorce alters your personal relationships, potentially changing your preferences for beneficiaries and decision-makers in your estate plan. Second, it impacts your financial landscape, necessitating adjustments in how your assets are distributed.

Revising distribution plans post-divorce

Once a marriage ends, it's crucial to reconsider how your assets will be distributed. This involves not just removing your ex-spouse as a beneficiary but also reallocating assets that were initially intended for them. In many states, the law may require certain distributions to a spouse; however, post-divorce, these requirements no longer apply. Revising your distribution plan ensures that your assets align with your current intentions and legal requirements.

Updating fiduciary and agent designations

two people going over fiduciary ad agent designations

In the aftermath of a divorce, one critical aspect that often requires immediate attention is the updating of fiduciary and agent designations within your estate plan. During marriage, it is common for spouses to entrust each other with significant responsibilities in their estate planning documents. However, once the marriage ends, these designations need to be reevaluated and possibly revised to avoid potential complications and to ensure that your estate plan aligns with your current intentions.

Understanding fiduciary and agent roles

In many estate plans, spouses are commonly named in pivotal roles such as trustees, executors and agents. As a trustee or executor, a spouse may be responsible for managing estate assets, executing the will or overseeing trust distributions. As an agent, particularly in powers of attorney, a spouse might have been granted authority to make crucial financial or health care decisions on your behalf.

If these designations are not updated post-divorce, your ex-spouse could retain significant control over important aspects of your life and estate. This could include managing your financial assets, making decisions about your health care or executing your last will and testament. Such a scenario might not only be contrary to your current wishes but could also lead to conflicts of interest or mismanagement.

Steps to update fiduciary and agent designations

Start by reviewing all estate planning documents where your ex-spouse is named. This includes your will, any trusts, powers of attorney and health care directives.

Reflect on who in your life is best suited to take on these responsibilities now. This might be adult children, other family members, trusted friends or professional fiduciaries. The chosen individuals should be those you trust to act in your best interest and have the capability to handle the responsibilities effectively.

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Once you have decided on the new designees, formalize these changes by amending your estate planning documents. This process typically requires legal assistance to ensure that the changes are executed correctly and are legally binding.

After updating your documents, inform the newly appointed individuals of their roles and responsibilities. It’s also important to notify financial institutions, health care providers and anyone else who may be impacted by these changes.

Situations and relationships continue to evolve, so it’s wise to regularly review and update these designations as part of your ongoing estate planning process.

Addressing tax planning post-divorce

Marital status influences tax planning, particularly when it comes to estate taxes. The shift from being married to unmarried may affect your estate's tax liability. Post-divorce, it's advisable to reassess your estate plan to identify potential tax liabilities and explore strategies like setting up an irrevocable life insurance trust to mitigate these taxes.

Beyond your will or trust, other documents need attention after a divorce. Powers of attorney and living wills often give significant decision-making power to a spouse. Post-divorce, if these documents still assign responsibilities to your ex, they should be updated to reflect your current wishes.

Examining non-probate-transfer assets

In the wake of a divorce, it's not only the assets that go through probate that need attention in your estate planning, but also those that transfer outside of probate. Non-probate-transfer assets are those that have designated beneficiaries and pass directly to these beneficiaries upon your death, bypassing the probate process. Common examples include life insurance policies, retirement accounts like 401(k)s and IRAs, payable-on-death bank accounts and investment accounts with transfer-on-death designations.

These assets are unique in that they are distributed based on beneficiary designations rather than your will or trust. Therefore, whoever is listed as the beneficiary on these accounts will receive the assets, regardless of the instructions in your will.

After a divorce, it’s imperative to review and potentially update the beneficiary designations on all non-probate assets. Failing to do so could result in your ex-spouse inadvertently receiving these assets upon your death.

While some states have laws that automatically nullify the designation of a spouse as a beneficiary upon divorce, this is not universal. In states without such laws, or in cases where you might still wish to name your ex-spouse as a beneficiary, active steps must be taken to either confirm or change the beneficiary designations.

lawyer working with probate documents

Retirement accounts can be particularly complex, as they are also governed by federal laws. For instance, ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) governs many private-sector retirement plans and can have specific rules about spousal rights. Post-divorce, it’s crucial to understand these rules and how they interact with your estate planning goals.

Here are some strategies for updating non-probate assets:

  • Consult with financial institutions. Contact the financial institutions holding your non-probate assets to understand their process for changing beneficiaries and to ensure your designations are current.

  • Coordinate with your estate plan. Ensure that the beneficiary designations on your non-probate assets align with your overall estate planning objectives. This coordination can prevent conflicts and confusion among your heirs.

  • Conduct regular reviews. Life changes continuously, and so should your beneficiary designations. Regularly reviewing these designations, especially after major life events like divorce, ensures they stay aligned with your current wishes.

Estate planning laws vary significantly from state to state, especially regarding divorce. It's vital to consult with a local estate planning attorney who can provide tailored advice based on the specific legal landscape of your state.


The process of divorce, while a challenging life event, also presents an important opportunity to reassess and update your estate plan. This step is vital to ensure that your estate planning reflects your new circumstances and aligns with your current wishes and objectives. As we have explored, divorce necessitates a thorough review of various aspects of your estate plan, from distribution plans to fiduciary and agent designations and tax planning considerations.

Revising distribution plans and updating beneficiary designations become crucial to prevent unintended consequences, such as inadvertently leaving assets to an ex-spouse. Adjusting fiduciary and agent roles is equally important to ensure that decision-making powers regarding your health, finances and estate are in the hands of individuals you trust and who understand your current preferences. Moreover, addressing the potential changes in tax liabilities post-divorce can safeguard your estate from unforeseen tax burdens, preserving more for your beneficiaries.

Furthermore, the review of non-probate-transfer assets like life insurance and retirement accounts is a key step often overlooked. These assets, which pass outside the traditional probate process, require careful attention to ensure that beneficiary designations are updated in line with your post-divorce estate planning goals.

In navigating these changes, it is wise to seek guidance from legal and financial professionals, especially considering the variations in estate planning laws by state. An estate planning attorney can provide personalized advice, ensuring that your estate plan not only complies with state laws but also effectively captures your changed circumstances and future aspirations.

Ultimately, taking proactive steps to update your estate plan post-divorce is not just about legal compliance; it’s about gaining peace of mind. It’s about ensuring that your estate plan continues to serve as a true reflection of your life’s journey, protecting your interests and securing your legacy for your loved ones. Regular reviews and updates to your estate plan, particularly after significant life events like divorce, will help maintain its relevance and effectiveness, giving you and your loved ones clarity and security for the future.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at

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