There is a new law in Florida dealing with divorce and the power of your will. The new law tries to correct the situation where you create a will giving your property to your fiancée, then marry, but divorce without changing your will. Many families discovered a will had no power to exclude an ex-spouse due to a loophole. The Florida legislature just addressed the situation.
Where There’s a Will There’s a Way?
One of the many consequences of divorce is that it is supposed to be the end of the marriage, and the benefits of being married. But that is not always the case. For example, one of the financial benefits of marriage is inheriting from your deceased spouse. However, an ex-spouse usually can’t inherit from their ex-spouse. Usually.
The problem is that many people who divorce forget to change the terms of their wills, trusts, or other financial instruments, and forget to omit their now Ex-Spouse from inheriting. As a result, the Ex-Spouse can become a beneficiary.
This common omission has led to unexpected windfalls for ex-spouses’ years after divorce, to the detriment of a current spouse, children, parents, and other family members who expected to be heirs of an estate.
A law protected these expected heirs from this oversight. The law protected new spouses and children by creating the legal fiction that, for purposes of inheritance, revocable trusts, and certain beneficiary designations, a past divorce is treated in the distribution as if the surviving former spouse had died on the date of divorce.
But this legal fiction does not apply where the divorce judgment specifically requires that the Ex-spouse remain as a beneficiary of the will, trust, or other financial instrument, or where the beneficiary designation is reaffirmed after divorce.
A Florida case exposed a loophole in this area. Ron Priever executed a will devising property to his then fiancée, Ms. Gordon. Some two years later, Mr. Priever and Ms. Gordon married. They divorced in July 2013. Mr. Priever died two years later. He left no children or spouse.
In April 2015, the guardian asked to treat Mr. Priever’s estate as an intestate estate as if there were no will. Allegedly, Mr. Priever told several of his family members that he destroyed or revoked his will because of a premarital agreement and subsequent divorce from Ms. Gordon.
The guardian asked the court for an order determining beneficiaries. He argued that, under Florida law, the will was to be construed under a legal fiction: as if Ms. Gordon had died before Mr. Priever.
But Ms. Gordon objected. First, she argued that she was very much alive. Second, that Florida law did not apply in her case because she was not married to Mr. Priever when he signed his will – she was only engaged. The trial court disagreed with her and she appealed.
The official term for divorce in Florida is “dissolution of marriage”. I’ve written about divorce many times before. There are a lot of issues concerning divorce when a death of a spouse or former spouse occurs.
In divorce, the issue of benefits if you survive your spouse or ex-spouse is a frequent question. For example, eligibility for social security benefits. If you are 62 or older, have a previous marriage that lasted at least 10 years and have not remarried, you may be eligible to collect Social Security benefits based on your former spouse’s earnings record.
If you are considering divorce, or just starting the process, you should review your estate plan to make sure it reflects your divorce plans. That is because it doesn’t matter how far along the divorce case is taking, or how long you are separated, you are legally married until the judge signs the final judgment in.
If you die or become disabled before the final decree of divorce, your estranged spouse may still have legal control over you and your estate and may be entitled to most, if not all, of your estate. This may not be what you intended.
Through proper estate planning documents, you can provide that someone other than your former spouse will have control over you and your estate, and you can limit your estranged spouse’s rights as a beneficiary of your estate.
The appellate court found the plain and unambiguous language of Florida law revokes provisions of a will executed by a “married person” and therefore it did not apply in Mr. Priever’s case.
The legislature has finally closed this loophole for divorced people whose will leaves everything behind to their ex-spouses.
The bill amends the Probate Code to provide that a former spouse is considered, for estate purposes, to have died on the date of the divorce. Once the law becomes effective, the date a will was signed will not affect this legal fiction.
The new bill amends the Trust Code to clarify the same result applies to a revocable trust. These changes apply to estates and trusts of decedents who die on or after the effective date of the bill, regardless of when the trust or will was signed.
The effective date of the bill for purposes of the changes to these two sections is upon becoming law.
The Senate Bill is here.