Without an updated estate plan, a surviving spouse is left with a world of trouble, as described in the article “Protect Your Spouse and Children by Updating Your Estate Plan” from The National Law Review.
In one example, a will from a prior marriage left all of a person’s assets to their prior spouse and siblings. Under New York and New Jersey state law, gifts to prior spouses are automatically revoked by law. What does that mean? All assets pass to the alternate beneficiary, who is named in the first will. For this particular spouse, that means that all the deceased spouse’s assets went to the siblings and not the new spouse.
In New Jersey and New York, spouses can elect against a will to claim a share of the deceased spouse’s assets, but this only applies to a third of their assets. That’s far short of what a spouse usually wants for their surviving spouse and children.
The only thing worse than an out-of-date will is no will at all. In another case, a spouse died without a will. The law in New Jersey provides that, in this situation, most assets will go to the surviving spouse, but almost a quarter will go to the deceased’s parents, if they are still living. If there are children from a prior marriage, then a little more than half of the estate will go to the surviving spouse.
The other bad part of having an out-of-date will almost always means that beneficiaries have not been updated. Here’s where things can get even worse.
Assets that have designated beneficiaries do not pass through probate and go directly to the beneficiaries. Depending upon what assets are owned with a designated beneficiary and how long ago the beneficiaries were named, serious issues can arise. In some states, prior spouses are removed as beneficiaries by the operation of law, but that is not always the case. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain your state’s laws.
Here’s one more case where a failure to update estate plans caused real hardship for a family. A niece, and not the new spouse, was named as the beneficiary of the deceased’s IRA, which was a large asset. Several hundred thousand dollars went to the niece instead of going to the man’s new wife and child. He simply never updated his IRA beneficiary designation.
While 401(k)s are always left to the spouse under ERISA, unless spousal consent is given for another beneficiary to receive the 401(k), IRAs are given to whomever is named as a beneficiary. The same is true for life insurance policies, investment accounts, bank accounts and any other asset with a named beneficiary.
Speak with your estate planning attorney now to be sure that your current will still reflects your estate planning goals. If you have remarried, divorced, welcomed a new child to the family, or had any other major life events, your estate plan needs to be updated. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
Reference: The National Law Review (March 16, 2020) “Protect Your Spouse and Children by Updating Your Estate Plan”