Unfortunately, “till death do us part” doesn’t seem to have the same weight or meaning that it had back in the day. Per the American Psychological Association, more than 90 percent of people marry by the age of 50, however, more than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Further, the divorce rate for subsequent marriages is even higher. An often-neglected aspect of divorce is the chaos it often makes of a well-crafted estate plan. Usually, the consequences of divorce in the context of estate planning isn’t realized until too late and significant time and money are wasted. The good news, however, is that these problems are easily avoided with a little foresight, or at least competent counsel from your Ohio estate planning attorney. Note, your estate planning attorney can only protect you if he knows what is going on, so, if any significant life events have occurred recently in your life, call your attorney and see if anything needs to be done.
- Why divorce matters in estate planning.
First step in fixing or avoiding a problem is understanding what the problem is. So, why is divorce so significant in the context of estate planning? At the end of the day, it all focuses around who gets what and when. With marriage, in the eyes of the law, two people become one. Thus, both are owners, and both have entitlements when they split. Figuring out a fair split of all the property of marriage is regularly a contentious, long, and expensive process.
This commingling of assets is what makes divorce so difficult, even if prenuptial agreements are in place. What’s considered separate property? What’s considered joint? Definitions vary by state, but in general separate property includes any property owned by either spouse prior to the marriage and any inheritances or gifts received by either spouse, before or during the marriage. Trusts can be used to house assets in separate ownership from a spouse, but this is not an airtight defense. Careful management and access restrictions must be drafted in the trust documents because, in the event of divorce, you can bet your bottom dollar your soon-to-be ex-spouse’s attorney will use all his wit and guile to get at whatever is in trust.
On the opposite side, marital property is typically any property that is acquired during the marriage, regardless of which spouse owns or holds title to the property. This is almost always subject to equitable division during divorce, again, a prenuptial is no guarantee, recent case law is full of court decisions disregarding these agreements for a variety of reasons.
Always remember that marital property isn’t just houses and cars but also pension plans, 401(k)s, IRAs, stock options, life insurance, closely held businesses and more. Further, if separately owned property increases in value during the marriage, that increase is also considered marital property. As a rule, if something holds value, it will be fought over during divorce. Due to the complexities involved when it comes to dividing assets, a marital property agreement can help clear up any confusion surrounding the ownership of assets, but this alone is insufficient protection if you fall on the wrong side of the 50 percent divorce rate.
- Divorce Estate Planning Strategies
After the long and arduous task of dividing assets, the next step is to reorganize an estate plan to match the new realities of your life. After divorce, but especially if remarriage is a possibility trusts should be established to protect your self-interests and children of your previous marriage, wills must be rewritten, often to at least counter an existing will which named a now ex-spouse as executor, and beneficiary designations must be changed, designations which often were made years ago and given little, if any, thought.
- Establish Trusts
A trust, to put it simply, is a private agreement that allows a third party, a trustee, to manage the assets that are placed inside the trust for the benefit of trust beneficiaries. There are innumerable types of trusts, each with own its respective legal conventions and purposes. Trusts come in many forms and are established to accomplish many different things. A revocable living trust fits most situations and can serve as the foundation of your estate plan. While not all trusts are created equally and not all trusts afford the same level of protection, without fail trusts provide greater protection for beneficiaries than outright distributions.
- Update Beneficiary Designations
To guarantee your estate planning goals are met and your money goes where you want it to, ensure that all beneficiary forms and designations are updated following marriage, divorce, or re-marriage. Life insurance proceeds and retirement accounts often represent significant portions of your estate, as such, beneficiary designations should generally pay the proceeds to your trust, if designated correctly. Trust utilization allows control while allowing these proceeds pass directly to an individual represents a risk of mismanagement or squandering.
- Update Last Will and Testament
At the beginning of every will there is language specifically disavowing all previous wills and codicils. This is included as boilerplate language because people forget to do it regularly. In the same vein, especially in the context of divorce or remarriage, update your will to reflect your current familial situation. Personal property bequest, executor appointments, and guardian designations all should be current and accurately reflected in your will.
- Adequate Bookkeeping
Knowledge is power and what you don’t know can hurt you. Regularly go through documents, make important designations current, and account for all of your assets. Outdated information and kill a well-drafted will, trusts, and/or beneficiary designation form. Oversights and neglect can cause estate planning headaches that are easily avoided with a little effort and regular meetings with your Cleveland estate planning attorney.