Even when a couple divorces, in some ways they still remained linked to one another until death -- and sometimes even after death -- at least from a financial standpoint.
Dividing assets in a way that the court deems as fair is a stressful and often cumbersome part of getting a divorce. It is very tempting to try to finalize the divorce as quickly as possible so that you can move on. However, even after the final divorce papers are signed there still may be some more work to do when it comes to updating your estate plan.
Wills and Trusts
Many people work with their divorce attorney to make sure that their spouse is cut out of their will automatically, but some have named other in-laws who may not be. If those people have a copy of a will that shows them as inheriting something, they may be able to claim it if no one else can find evidence that they shouldn't.
This is exactly what happened after the death of a woman who had died at age 46, years after her divorce. Her ex-husband had no claims to her estate, but her former father-in-law produced an old will that passed property on to him. Since no one else in her family could find an updated will, he was able to collect the inheritance.
Lesson: After a divorce, it is important to draft new estate planning documents that will supersede any old documents, and make sure your family is able to locate the documents.
Accounts including life insurance plans, savings accounts, or other financial accounts often have a person designated as a beneficiary when they are set up, but people have a tendency to forget about the designations over time. In many cases, spouses are named as beneficiaries, and remain beneficiaries after a divorce even though these were not the account holder's wishes.
Lesson: A divorce doesn't usually remove your ex-spouse as beneficiary automatically, so it is important to have these changed to someone else, if that is what you would prefer.
Reinforcing Terms of the Divorce
Sometimes divorce settlements indicate that retirement accounts should be split between spouses once they reach maturity. This may mean that you are supposed to receive a portion of your ex's account when this happens at some point in the future, or when they die.
Paperwork for these agreements should be updated with the ex's employer and/or financial institution involved. A Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) is a document that can help reinforce your claim on those assets that were awarded to you in a divorce settlement.
Lesson: Make sure you ask your lawyer about whether a QDRO is necessary in your case, and be sure to follow up with it after the divorce, if necessary.
If you are divorced while you are relatively young, it is easy to think you will have plenty of time to double check your will and financial accounts to assure that your wishes will be carried out, but life can be unpredictable. Working with a family law firm that also handles estate planning issues can help you to avoid any pitfalls.