One of the more unpleasant realities of modern life is the possibility of getting a divorce. Among the many issues that a divorce brings is its effect on your estate plan. Pennsylvania law automatically invalidates bequests to ex-spouses and designations of ex-spouses as beneficiaries.
Under Pennsylvania law, it is presumed that any provision in a person’s Will that leaves part of the estate to his or her spouse becomes ineffective upon divorce or if the person died during the course of divorce proceedings after grounds for divorce have been established. This means that any part of the estate that was to pass through the Will to the ex-spouse will fall into the estate’s residue (the part of the estate that is left after any specific bequests are made). Usually a Will contains a residuary clause, which designates the beneficiaries of the residue. While you may very well intend for the assets that were to go to your ex-spouse to go to the residuary beneficiaries after divorce, it is a good idea to update your Will to remove any bequests to your ex-spouse. This ensures that your wishes are clear and will help in avoiding any problems at your death.
Similarly, any designation of a spouse as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy, annuity contract, or other contractual agreement (including most retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s) becomes ineffective upon divorce in Pennsylvania, so long as the designation was revocable at the time of the policy holder or owner’s death. Such a designation also becomes ineffective if the owner died during divorce proceedings after grounds for divorce have been established. Because the ex-spouse is treated as if he or she had predeceased the owner, the insurance policy or other account will go to the contingent beneficiary. After getting divorced, then, it is a good idea to check the contingent beneficiaries listed for each of those accounts. Even if you want those individuals to receive the payments, you may still want to contact the insurance company or financial institution to remove your ex-spouse’s name as beneficiary to avoid any confusion.
In some cases an individual may still want to provide money to a former spouse at his or her death. Pennsylvania law allows for this as well. The law that nullifies bequests to ex-spouses does not apply if the language in the Will makes it clear that the bequest should survive divorce. Likewise, a designation of an ex-spouse as a beneficiary will survive divorce if it appears that the designation was intended to do so. Such an intention may arise in the wording of the designation, a court order, a written contract between the spouses, or a designation of a former spouse as a beneficiary made after the divorce.