Is My Will Void If I Get Divorced?

If you neglect to update your estate plan after a divorce, everything you gave to your ex in your original will could very well add up to a nice post-divorce inheritance. Even in the most amicable divorces, it’s probably not what you had intended. Yet, as reported in the article “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce” from Investopedia, people do this.

Depending on where you live, there might be a law that automatically revokes gifts to a former spouse listed in a will. In Florida, there is a statute addressing this. In Texas, a law revokes gifts to the former spouse and their relatives. However, unless you know the laws of your state as well as an estate planning attorney, it’s best to let the estate planning attorney protect your estate.

What happens if you die before you are legally divorced?

If your will leaves everything to your surviving spouse and you are currently in the process of separating and divorcing, it’s time for a new will, as soon as possible.

Don’t forget assets passing outside of the will. Assets with beneficiary designations, like life insurance, investment accounts and some retirement plans, go directly to the beneficiary listed on the account. If the beneficiary is your ex, you should also make those changes as soon as possible.

Your estate plan must also update any property gained or lost during the divorce. If any assets are specifically identified in your will, be sure to update them.

The executor (the person named in your will to oversee the distribution of assets) probably has to be changed as well. If you had previously named your ex-spouse, it’s time to name a new executor.

Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. If you have children with your ex, you will want to appoint a guardian in case both you and your ex are not alive to raise them. If you die unexpectedly, your spouse will raise them, but you should still name a guardian. If a surviving parent has a serious problem, like addiction, child abuse or incarceration, naming a guardian in your will and documenting the reasons you believe your ex is an unfit parent may be a deciding factor in how a judge awards custody.

A will can be updated by writing a codicil, which is an amendment to a previous or a prior will. However, since there may be many changes to a will in a divorce, it is better to tear up the old one—literally—and start over. A prior will is revoked by physically tearing up and destroying the original and including language in the new will that it will revokes all prior wills. Your attorney will know how to do this properly.

Your ex may have the legal right to challenge your will. This is why an estate planning attorney is so necessary to create a new will. There are provisions in some states that may give your ex more rights than in other states. In a divorce situation, the use of an experienced estate planning attorney can make the difference in your ex receiving a windfall and your new spouse or children receiving their rightful inheritance.

Reference: Investopedia (September 14, 2021) “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce”

Do I Have to Give My Husband’s Children from First Marriage Anything When He Dies?”

This is a common question with second (or third marriages) and blended families. Questions frequently arise about Social Security, investments and savings, when the husband is divorced from the children’s mother and is paying child support until each child turns 18.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Are my husband’s kids from another marriage due assets when he dies?” says that these questions demonstrate why estate planning is critical to revisit after a divorce. You can take action to make certain that you’re taken care of, but if you don’t do this at the time of the divorce, it could be too late.

Let’s look at what you should know about beneficiaries and wills. First, beneficiary designations supersede a will. Make sure that all beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries are consistent with your wishes. There are beneficiary designations on retirement accounts, pensions, life insurance policies, annuities and other accounts that take precedence over what may be stated in a will.

While New Jersey does not provide for beneficiary designations on certain assets like a house, vehicles, and real estate, many other states do. For assets without a beneficiary, it’s important to determine the way in which they’re titled.

The titling of assets has an effect on how the assets will be distributed after death. Thus, when married again, spouses should review and update their wills to have an idea of how a spouse’s estate would be disbursed at his or her death.

If a husband is paying child support, divorce decrees will often dictate that he purchase life insurance to cover that obligation upon his death. Therefore, there may be a life insurance policy for the children from a first marriage.

With Social Security, if a spouse remains unmarried after the spouse’s death, he or she can claim a survivor spousal benefit as early as age 60, and if he or she is caring for the spouse’s children from the first marriage who are under 16 years of age, he or she may be entitled to receive a payment earlier. The deceased spouse’s unmarried children can also claim a survivor benefit until age 18, or longer if in high school or disabled.

Reference: nj.com (Aug. 4, 2021) “Are my husband’s kids from another marriage due assets when he dies?”

How to Protect an Estate from a Rotten Son-in-Law

If you’ve been working for a while, you have an estate. If you’ve been working for a long time, you may even have a sizable estate, and between your home, insurance and growing retirement funds, your estate may reach the million dollar mark. That’s the good news. But the bad news might be an adult child with a drug or drinking problem, or a child who married a person who doesn’t deserve to inherit any part of your estate. Not to mention an ex-spouse or two. What will happen when you aren’t there to protect your estate?

There are steps to protect your estate and your family members, as described in the recent article “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate” from Federal News Network.

Don’t overlook beneficiary designations. Most employer-sponsored retirement and savings accounts have beneficiary designations to identify the people you wish to receive these assets when you die. Here’s an important fact to know: the beneficiary designation overrides any language in your last will and testament. If your beneficiary designation on an account names a child but your will gives your estate to your spouse, your child will receive assets in the account, and your spouse will not receive any proceeds from the account.

Don’t try to sell a property for below-market value. The same goes for trying to remove assets from your ownership to qualify for Medicaid to cover long-term care costs. Selling your home to an adult child for $1 will not pass unnoticed. Estate taxes, gift taxes, income taxes and eligibility for government benefits can’t be avoided by this tactic.

A common estate planning mistake is to name specific investments in a will. A will becomes part of the public record when it is probated. Providing details in a will is asking for trouble, especially if a nefarious family member is looking for assets. And if the sale or other disposition of the named asset before your death impacts bequests, your estate may be vulnerable to litigation.

How will you leave real estate assets to heirs? Real estate assets can be problematic and need special consideration. Are you leaving shares to a vacation home or the family home? If kids or their spouses don’t get along, or one person wants to live in the home while others want to sell it, this could cause years of family fights.

Making a bequest to a grandchild instead of to a troubled adult child. Minor children may not legally inherit property, so leaving assets to a grandchild does not avoid giving assets to an adult child. The most likely guardian will be their parent, undoing the attempt to keep assets out of the parent’s control.

Include a residuary clause in a will or trust. Residuary clauses are used to dispose of assets not specifically mentioned in a will or trust. Your estate planning attorney will create the residuary clauses most appropriate for your unique situations.

Prepare for the unexpected. Your estate plan can be designed to address the unexpected. If a primary beneficiary like a daughter or son divorces their spouse, a trust could prevent the ex from gaining access to your assets.

An effective estate plan, prepared with an experienced estate planning attorney, can plan for all of the “what ifs” to protect loved ones after you have passed.

Reference: Federal News Network (Sep. 1, 2021) “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate”

Common Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Every family has one: the brother-in-law or aunt who knows everything about, well, everything. When the information is wrong, expensive problems are created, especially when it comes to estate planning. Estate planning attorneys devote a good deal of time to education to help prevent unnecessary and costly mistakes, as described in the article “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes” from The News-Enterprise.

The most common is the idea of a “simple” estate plan. What does “simple” mean? For most people, the idea of “simple” is appealing—they don’t want to deal with long and complicated documents with legal phrases they don’t understand. However, those complex phrases are necessary, if the estate plan is to protect your interests and loved ones.

Another mistake is thinking an estate plan is a one-and-done affair. Just as people’s lives and fortunes change over time, so should their estate plan. An estate plan created for a young family with small children won’t work for a mature couple with grown children and significant savings.

Change also comes to family dynamics. The same cousin who was like a sister during your teen years may not be as close in values or geography, when you both have elementary school children. Do you still want her to be your child’s guardian? An updated estate plan takes into account the changing relationships within the family, as well as the changing members of the family. A beloved brother-in-law isn’t so beloved, if he divorces your favorite sister. When families change, estate plans need to be updated.

Here is a huge mistake rarely articulated: somehow not thinking about death or incapacity might prevent either event from happening. We know that death is inevitable, and incapacity is statistically probable. Planning for both events in no way increases or decreases their likelihood of occurring. What planning does, is provide peace of mind in knowing you have prepared for both events.

No one wants to be in a nursing home but telling loved ones you want to remain at home “no matter what happens” is not a plan for the future. It is devastating to move a loved one into a nursing home. However, people with medical needs need to be there to receive proper care and treatment. Planning for the possibility is better than a family making arrangements, financial and otherwise, on an emergency basis.

Do you remember that all-knowing family member described in the start of this article? Their advice, however well-intentioned, can be disastrous. Alternatives to estate planning take many shapes: putting the house in the adult child’s name or adding the adult child’s name to the parent’s investment accounts. If the beneficiary has a future tax liability, debt or divorce, the parent’s assets are there for the taking.

Properly done, with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney, your estate plan protects you and those you love, as well as the assets you’ve gained over a lifetime. Don’t fall for the idea of “simple” or back-door alternatives. Formalize your goals, so your plans and wishes will be followed.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 24, 2021) “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes”

A Trust can Protect Inheritance from Relatives

It’s always exciting to watch adult children build their lives and select spouses. However, even if we adore the person they love, it’s wise to prepare to protect our children, says a recent article titled “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer” from Kiplinger.

After all, why would you want the assets and money that you accumulated over a lifetime to pass to any ex-spouse, if a divorce happens?

With the current federal estate tax exemptions still historically high (although that may change in the near future), setting up a trust to protect wealth from federal estate taxes isn’t the driving force in many estate plans. The bigger concern is how well your children will do, if and when they receive their inheritance.

Some people recognize that their children are simply not up to the task. They worry about potential divorces, or a spendthrift spouse. The answer is estate planning in general, and more specifically, a well-designed trust. By establishing a trust as part of an estate plan, these assets can be protected.

If an adult child receives an inheritance and commingles it with assets owned jointly with their spouse—like a joint bank account—depending upon the state where they live, the inheritance may become a marital asset and subject to marital property division, if the couple divorces.

If the inheritance remains in a trust account, or if the trust funds are used to pay for assets that are only owned in the child’s name, the inherited wealth can be protected. This permits the child to have assets as a financial cushion, if a divorce should happen.

Placing an inheritance in a trust is often done after a first divorce, when the family learns the hard way how combined assets are treated. Wiser still is to have a trust created when the child marries. In that way, there’s less of a learning curve (not to mention more assets to preserve).

Here are three typical situations:

Minor children. Children who are 18 or younger cannot inherit assets. However, when they reach the age of majority, they can. A sudden and large inheritance is best placed in the hands of a trustee, who can guide them to make smart decisions and has the ability to deny requests that may seem entirely reasonable to an 18-year-old, but ridiculous to a more mature adult.

Newlyweds. Most couples are divinely happy in the early years of a marriage. However, when life becomes more complicated, as it inevitably does, the marriage may be tested and might not work out. Setting up a trust after the couple has been together for five or ten years is an option.

Marriage moves into the middle years. After five or ten years, it’s likely you’ll have a clearer understanding of your child’s spouse and how their marriage is faring. If you have any doubts, talk with an estate planning attorney, and set up a trust for your child.

Estate plans should be reviewed every four or five years, as circumstances, relationships and tax laws change. A periodic review with your estate planning attorney allows you to ensure that your estate plan reflects your wishes.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 16, 2021) “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

Many family-owned businesses have had to scramble to maintain ownership, when owners or heirs were struck by COVID-19. Lacking a succession plan may have led to disastrous results, or at best, less than optimal corporate structures and large tax bills. This difficult lesson is a wake-up call, says the article “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’” from Bloomberg Tax.

Another factor putting family-owned businesses at risk is divorce. Contemplating the best way to transfer ownership to the next generation requires a candid examination of family dynamics and acknowledgment of outsiders (i.e., in-laws) and the possibility of divorce.

Before documents can be created, a number of issues need to be discussed:

Transfer timing. When will the ownership of the business transfer to the next generation? There are some who use life-events as prompts: births, marriages and/or the death of the owners.

How will the transfer take place? Corporate structures and estate planning tools provide many options limited only by the tax liabilities and wishes of the family. Be wary, since each decision for the structure may have unintended consequences. Short and long-term strategic planning is needed.

To whom will the business be transferred? Who will receive an ownership interest and what will be the rights of ownership? Will there be different levels of ownership, and will those levels depend upon the level of activity in the business? Will percentages be used, or shares, or another form?

In drafting a succession plan, it is wise to assume that the future owners will either marry or divorce—perhaps multiple times. The succession plan should address these issues to prevent an ex-spouse from becoming a shareholder, whose interest in the business needs to be bought out.

The operating agreement/partnership agreement should require all future owners to enter into a prenuptial agreement before marriage specifically excluding their interest in the family business from being distributed, valued, or deemed marital property subject to distribution, if there is a divorce.

An owner may even exact a penalty for a subsequent owner who fails to enter into a prenup prior to a marriage. The same corporate document should specifically bar an owner’s spouse from receiving an ownership interest under any circumstance.

A prenup is intended to remove the future value of the owner’s interest from the marital asset pool. This typically requires the owner to buy-out the future spouse’s legal claim to future value. This could be a costly issue, since the value of the future ownership interest cannot be predicted at the time of the marriage.

Many different strategies can be used to develop a succession plan that ideally works alongside the business owner’s estate plan. These are used to ensure that the business remains in the family and the family interests are protected.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 5,2021) “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’”

Estate Planning and a Second Marriage

In California, a community property state, a resident can bequeath (leave) 100% of their separate property assets and half of their community property assets. A resident may only bequeath the entirety of a community property asset to someone other than their spouse with their spouse’s consent or acquiescence. This can be extremely important to those in second marriages with prior children.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for second marriages” asks, first, does the individual’s (the testator) spouse even need support? If they don’t, a testator typically leaves his or her separate property assets directly to his or her own children. However, because the surviving spouse is an heir of the testator, his or her will and/or trust must acknowledge the marriage and say that the spouse is not inheriting. Otherwise, the surviving spouse as heir may be entitled either to a one-half or one-third share in the testator’s separate property, along with all of the couple’s community property assets. The surviving spouse would inherit, if the testator died intestate (with no will) or he or she passed with an outdated will he or she signed before this marriage that left out the current spouse.

If the spouse needs support, consider the assets and family relationships. Determine if the assets are the surviving spouse’s separate property from prior to marriage or from inheritance while married. It is also important to know if the testator’s spouse and children get along and whether it’s possible for the beneficiaries to inherit separate assets. If the testator’s surviving spouse and children aren’t on good terms and/or are close in age, and if it’s possible for separate assets to go to each party, perhaps they should inherit separate assets outright and part company. If not, it can get heated and complicated quickly. For example, the testator’s house could be left to his or her children and a retirement plan goes to the testator’s spouse.

If that type of set-up doesn’t work, a testator might consider making the spouse a lifetime beneficiary of a trust that owns some or all of an individual’s assets. A trust requires careful drafting, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Next, determine if the children need support, and if so, what kind of support, such as Supplemental Security Income. Also think about whether the children can manage an outright inheritance or if a special needs or a support trust is required.

This just scratches the surface of this complex topic. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about your specific situation.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Feb. 23, 2021) “Estate planning for second marriages”

Planning Future for Nontraditional Families

Today’s non-traditional family are not just LGBTQ couples, but families undergoing gray divorces, blended families, stepchildren, multinational families and children born through assisted reproductive technologies, referred to as ART, in a recent article titled “How to Plan for LGBTQ, Blended Families, Cohabitation, Other Nontraditional Families” from Financial Advisor.

The key is having an estate plan prepared that is flexible so that last wills, trusts, and all documents reflect the non-traditional family very clearly and do not leave room for courts to make decisions. Here are a few new elements to consider:

Gendered pronouns and definitions. Ideally, your estate documents should use specific names of individuals, not pronouns. We live in a fluid society and using pronouns could lead to unnecessary complications.

Recognize ART and its implications. If there are children conceived by ART, they need to be explicitly included as children of the family. DNA testing can result in a child inheriting assets from a parent they never knew. It may be wise to exclude biological children, parents or siblings who do not have a relationship with the family.

Trust Protector/Trust Decanting. By including provisions that permit trusts to be decanted, that is, transferred from one trust to another, your estate planning attorney will create flexibility to allow a trust protector (a non-fiduciary appointment of a third party) to make changes. The selection of the trust protector is particularly important, as they could have a large impact on the overall plan.

Marriage, non-marital relationships, divorce, remarriage. An estate plan needs to prepare for future changes with precision and flexibility. Protecting the family, its privacy and dignity can be done by limiting the information in the last will, which becomes a public document. While we can’t know what the future holds, we can plan for change.

Prenuptial agreements. State laws vary on what is acceptable and procedurally necessary for a prenup to be enforceable. Typically, the agreement must be voluntary and include full disclosure of both parties’ financial situation. In some states, post-nuptials can be prepared, if the parties can’t agree on the document before they are legally wed.

Divorce creates special estate planning issues. Beneficiary designations need to be changed for life insurance, IRAs and other non-probate assets. Take affirmative steps to ensure that ex-spouses, or soon-to-be exes are removed as beneficiaries on all accounts, including pensions and insurance plans subject to ERISA.

Cohabitating couples. Marital gifts are tax free, but that is not the case for people living together. Estate planning and tax planning needs to be done, so the surviving partner is taken care of. This may include the creation of a cohabitation agreement, similar to a prenuptial agreement.

Planning for sickness and death. Explicitly stating wishes for end-of-life medical treatments, including feeding tubes, respirators, heart machines, etc., is step one in having an Advance Medical Directive created. Step two is deciding who is empowered to make those decisions. Someone who is unmarried but has a partner or a second spouse needs to be authorized. Note that when an individual is hospitalized, stepparents may attempt to deny access to spouses’ children, or children may block access to a stepparent. There should also be a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) or Physicians Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) in place with the person’s wishes.

Non-traditional families of all types need to protect the family with estate planning and documentation. Issues about protecting children, making health care decisions for a critically ill partner and control of assets must be addressed in a way that respects the individuals and their families while working within the law.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Feb. 2, 2021) “How to Plan for LGBTQ, Blended Families, Cohabitation, Other Nontraditional Families”

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

No Time Like the Present Pandemic to Get the Estate Plan Going

The pandemic has made many people focus on depressing things, like death. Many of us are worth more dead than alive.

Federal News Network’s recent article entitled “It’s your estate, but who gets it?” says that lack of control is one of the frustrating things about this already terrifying pandemic. We can wear masks, keep our distance and avoid crowds, but then what?

There are some very important and valuable things that are still under your control. One of these is estate planning.

Any number of things could have occurred in 2020 that are off your radar because you’re still adjusting to the many changes the pandemic has brought to our everyday lives.

Many people see their estate plan as one of life’s necessary chores. Once it’s signed, they simply file it away and forget about it. However, an estate plan should be reviewed regularly to be certain that it continues to meet your needs. Here are just a few of the life events that make it essential for you to review and possibly revise your estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney:

  • The birth or adoption of a child
  • You are contemplating divorce
  • You have recently divorced
  • Your child gets married
  • Your child develops substance abuse problems or has issues with managing finances
  • Those you’ve named as executor, trustee, or agents under a power of attorney have died, moved away, or are no longer able to fulfil these obligations
  • Your child faces financial challenges
  • Your minor children reach the age of majority
  • There has been a change in the law that impacts your estate plan
  • You get a sizeable inheritance or other windfall.
  • You have an estate plan but can’t locate it
  • You acquire property; or
  • You move to another state.

If any of these events occur, talk to your estate planning attorney to see if it is necessary to revise your estate plan to address these issues.

Reference: Federal News Network (Nov. 4, 2020) “It’s your estate, but who gets it?”