What Happens to Your Estate If You Die During a Divorce?

Reviewing estate planning documents

Probate can be a very complex and difficult branch of the law to deal with. Knowing what assets go where, and who inherits what property can be a particular challenge, and this can be amplified by the circumstances surrounding a person’s passing. For instance, do you know what will happen to your estate if you pass while going through a divorce? One Pennsylvania family found out, and they spent years in court straightening the mess out.

What If You Pass While Getting a Divorce?

It was August 13, 2013 when a Pennsylvania wife filed for divorce from her husband. They began the legal proceedings and by November of that same year the wife had provided a consent to divorce affidavit to her husband, which he soon returned to her. In December of 2013 they entered into a postnuptial agreement involving their pension and retirement plans. In January 2014, the wife filed for a final decree of divorce, but that was denied because she had waited too long to file the affidavit of consent she and her husband had signed. Then, on September 21, 2014, her husband died, and a wild probate struggle began.

Upon the husband’s death, the wife withdrew her divorce matter and claimed the man’s pension and life insurance policy. The man’s survivors, two sons and a daughter, immediately went to court to demand that the wife—who was the man’s second wife—preserve and return the insurance and pension funds to the man’s estate. According to the postnuptial agreement, the husband and wife waived all rights to the other’s pension and retirement plans.

The husband’s estate took the wife to court where a judge ruled that the pension benefits should be returned to the estate while the wife would retain the funds from the insurance policy. Both parties appealed this decision and the matter eventually made its way to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. There, judges upheld the previous ruling stating that the postnuptial agreement did not mention insurance policy benefits. The court also said that though the Employment Retirement Income Security Act demands that pensions be paid according to the plan’s documents (and not a postnuptial agreement), a postnuptial agreement can compel that beneficiary to turn over the funds after they are received.

This case proves just how complicated probate matters can become, and given the right circumstances they can be even more complex. Good estate planning and having a will can do a lot to smooth out a complicated situation like this. Having an attorney that can help you keep these important estate details current and up-to-date is also key.