What if a Spouse Dies During the Divorce?

Well this is a gloomy post: it’s about death and divorce. In November 1789, Benjamin Franklin wrote: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” If roughly half of marriages end in divorce, there are some odds that a spouse will die during the divorce case. What happens legally and emotionally when a spouse dies during the divorce?

Emotional Roller Coaster

As the Washington Post reports, a couple of years after a wife and husband separated — but before he reached a divorce settlement — he died of a heart attack at age 57.

Overnight, the wife went from almost-ex-wife to widow. But, nearly six years later, I still feel as if I was widowed on a technicality. A real widow doesn’t have a divorce lawyer and a Match profile. A real widow is pining for her spouse, inconsolable.

Sometimes she calls herself a “partial widow.” To make her point, she mentioned a friend whose fiancé died three weeks before their wedding. “She doesn’t get to call herself a widow and I do?” “That’s ridiculous.”

Misplaced Emotions

“It’s called disenfranchised grief,” and it is also referred to as the grief that has no voice, because it’s a grief that our society typically does not recognize.”

It occurs in situations that fall outside the norm and might also include, for example, mourning the death of a former spouse or an extramarital lover. A widow who was about to be divorced has no defined place in society, so we often don’t know what we’re supposed to do.

Even responding to condolences can be awkward because there’s an element of not wanting to accept sympathy for something that is a misconception on their part. Others feel for the surviving spouse in a way that doesn’t feel accurate to the experience. It’s a different kind of pain than they’re assuming.

Legal Implications

I’ve written about divorce problems before. When a spouse dies during a divorce, the death of the spouse can have major legal implications that extend far beyond the mixed feelings you may have about losing your soon-to-be ex spouse.

Divorces are unlike other civil cases. It is true that in ordinary civil cases, the death of a party does not deprive a court of the power to enter a judgment after the death of a party. This means a court can still rule. This happens frequently in breach of contract actions, and especially in personal injury cases.

However, the general principle does not apply to divorce actions since the death itself has already terminated the marriage.

In Florida, the general rule for divorce is that there can be no judgment of divorce rendered after the death of either of the parties, since that event of itself terminates the status of marriage.

This immediate stopping of the divorce when a spouse dies during the divorce process can cause a lot of problems. This is especially true in divorce cases in which the parties are elderly, or sick, and death is a very real possibility. In those cases, the parties should seriously consider ways to avoid the court losing jurisdiction because of death.

The Washington Post article is here.