The untimely death of chef and actor Anthony Bourdain has brought to national attention the potential ramifications of a person’s death during a divorce proceeding. In the same vein, it has highlighted the importance of understanding what would happen to your estate if you were to die during the pendency of your dissolution without having made any changes to your estate plan.
As occurred with Mr. Bourdain’s untimely death, he had been separated from his wife of 20 years for a year and a half. Though the pending “divorce” was made very public, it is unknown whether any divorce filing actually occurred,
What if does indeed happen if you have not taken steps in expectation of a permanent separation (indeed some are more permanent than others)? The broad answer to this complicated issue depends on whether your passing occurs before or after entry of judgment terminating your marital status. This discussion describes what occurs under California Probate and Family Law. The rules for these scenarios may be different in other states.
Death Before Entry of Judgment Terminating Marital Status
If you should die before entry of a status-only judgment, the Family Law Court would lose jurisdiction over all issues, except those already adjudicated. In California, this is called Abatement, and it happens automatically in this situation. Under these circumstances, your share of the community property and all of your separate property would pass as if the Divorce had never been filed! This is true, regardless of who originally filed, how long the divorce went on, how long the period of separation, or how hostile the parties were to each other during the process. It is also true regardless of cohabitation with a new significant other, regardless of the length of that cohabitation.
Therefore, your assets would pass to the beneficiaries of your current estate plan, which is usually your surviving spouse. If you do not have an estate plan, your estate, if over $150,000.00, would pass through probate, and your spouse would potentially receive all of the community property assets and a share of the separate property. Any non-probate assets, such as retirement assets and life insurance plans, would pass to your designated beneficiaries, again, normally your estranged spouse.
Death After Judgment Terminating Marital Status
If you should die after a status-only judgment (a provision of California law that allows the divorce to occur before, or separate from, the resolution of the other issues) that expressly reserves jurisdiction over the remaining issues in the case, the Family Law Court would retain jurisdiction and the property division would take place there. The personal representative of your estate would be substituted in your place in the divorce for this purpose, and the Family Law Court would be able to decide the outstanding issues in the case. It is worth noting, that the court’s jurisdiction over custody, child support, and spousal support would terminate automatically upon your death in the vast majority of cases.
Death after a status-only judgment also has a very different impact on how your estate would be distributed. A judgment of dissolution automatically terminates non-probate transfers between former spouses, including wills, trusts, and beneficiary rights under retirement plans. It also terminates the right of survivorship interest in joint tenancies and community property with right of survivorship. Unless the respective wills provide otherwise, the judgment also revokes all testamentary transfers between former spouses and any provision in a will nominating the former spouse as trustee, conservator or agent. However, a judgment of dissolution does not terminate the surviving spouse’s rights as a designated beneficiary under the life insurance policy. While the ability to change a beneficiary of a retirement plan or life insurance policy may remain during a divorce, California law prohibits such a change after the filing or service of Divorce papers.
One issue that everyone should consider with an impending divorce is that if you do not sign documents specifically stating otherwise, your estranged spouse will continue to hold the power, upon your incapacity, to make medical decisions on your behalf and, like in the case of Anthony Bourdain, will be the person to make all decisions regarding the disposition of your remains.
While no-one anticipates their death, the best course of action, always, is to prepare for that eventuality with an updated, current estate plan, which takes into consideration all aspects of your life, including an impending divorce. Sometimes doing nothing is indeed a conscious choice; by way of illustration a person with knowledge of a terminal illness also going through a divorce who chooses to maintain or change his/her estate plan. Sometimes it’s simply doing nothing.
Obviously we recommend that you always make that conscious choice knowing all of the consequences of that choice.