What Happens to Your Will if You Get Divorced?

It is especially important to review your estate plan in a divorce situation.
It is especially important to review your estate plan in a divorce situation.

Every time you experience a life changing event, including divorce, it’s time to revisit your Will to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises for you or your family. As reported in the article “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce” from Investopedia, failing to review your current estate plan when contemplating a divorce can lead to results that you never intended.

Texas Law Can Save You

Luckily, in Texas we have several laws that cover you if you forget or don’t get around to writing your ex spouse out of your Will. Texas law presumes that after a divorce you do not want a former spouse to be a beneficiary under your Will or to act as your executor or agent under a power of attorney to make financial or medical decisions for you.

In fact, if you do want your former spouse to be your executor or agent, you need to reappoint them in new estate planning documents you execute after the divorce.

One thing to remember is that if your ex is a parent of your children, you will not be able to eliminate him or her as a guardian of your children if something happens to you while they are minors. The only way the other parent will not be allowed to be guardian of his or her child is if the parent is found unsuitable.

But you should still execute a new designation of guardian for your minor children in case your ex who is the parent is deceased or is found to be unsuitable to be guardian.

So, Where’s the Problem?

What if you pass away before the divorce is final? The law only applies to a divorced spouse, not if you are only separated or waiting for the divorce to be final. That’s why it’s a good idea to change your estate planning documents when you’re contemplating a divorce.

Issues With Some Retirement Plans

Also, Texas law cannot override a very harsh US Supreme Court case holding that state law does not apply to employer related retirement plans, such as 401(k)’s and 403(b)’s. These kinds of retirement benefits are subject to federal law which supersedes state law.

This US Supreme Court case, Egelhoff v Egelhoff, was decided in 2001. Mr. Egelhoff, an employee of Boeing Company, had a pension and life insurance policy that was provided by his employer.

Mr. Egelhoff, died in a car accident two months after his divorce, but before he changed the beneficiaries on his retirement and company life insurance.  Though the company still listed Mr. Egelhoff’s ex-wife as beneficiary, Mr. Egelhoff’s children by a previous marriage claimed that he had every intention of removing their stepmother as beneficiary and naming them, his children, as beneficiaries. That would seem to make sense given the circumstances.

Mr. Egelhoff’s children sued their father’s ex-wife for the retirement benefits and the life insurance, claiming that there was no way their father wanted his ex-wife to have the benefits to the detriment of his children.

The Court said that, under federal law, the company’s plan documents control who the beneficiary is and that the benefits would be distributed to the person who was listed with the company as beneficiary at the time of death, even if the beneficiary had been recently divorced from the employee.

The moral of the story is to make sure that beneficiaries on company related benefits are changed immediately after divorce to avoid the unfair result that happened to the Egelhoff children. State law cannot save you in that situation.

What’s Our Takeaway from This?

Every time there is a major life event (divorce, death of a family member, marriage, increase or decrease in wealth, illness, etc.) it is time to review your estate plan to make sure that it reflects what you want and need now. If you wait too long, things may not work out the way you want them to for your family and yourself.

Reference: Investopedia (September 14, 2021) “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce”

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Responsibilities of an Agent under a Power of Attorney

The concept of a power of attorney sounds simple but there is a lot to know about this important part of an estate plan, says the Rushville Republican in “Financial power of attorney responsibilities.” Whether you are named as someone’s power of attorney or you are considering who to name on your behalf, it is important to understand the terminology, the role and the responsibilities.

The person who signs the POA is called the “principal” and the person to whom authority is given, is often referred to as the “attorney in fact” or the “agent.”

What powers are given to the person who becomes the agent?  The POA provides what powers the agent will have, but generally the idea is the agent can do whatever the individual would do. That includes opening bank accounts, buying and selling property, managing investments, filing taxes, cashing checks and closing accounts. An agent is a considered a fiduciary of the principal, which means that he has a legal duty to act in the principal’s best interest.

The POA generally is not recorded in a courthouse. If you are signing a document for the principal that does have to be recorded with the county, like a deed to a house, then you will need to present and record the POA with the county recorder, before the document can be recorded. The laws in your state or county may be different, so check with your estate planning attorney to be certain.

The POA should remember to keep his assets and the principal’s assets separate. Money should not be intermingled in bank accounts or investment accounts. This is a very important point, since the fiduciary responsibility is a serious matter. The POA can be changed or revoked by the principal at any time, as long as she is mentally competent.

The POA ends with the death of the principal. It is meant to be used as a helpful tool, while the person is living. After the person dies, the executor takes over as the personal representative of the person’s estate.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about making the decisions as to who should be your Power of Attorney. This is a very important role and it must be someone who you can trust implicitly and who is also willing to take on the responsibilities.

 

Reference: Rushville Republican (Jan. 22,2019) “Financial power of attorney responsibilities”

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Which Powers should a Power of Attorney Include?

Most clients have at least heard of powers of attorney (POA), and I find that many people with an existing estate plan have one.  However, I find the biggest problem with powers of attorney is not the lack of one, but having one without sufficient powers or provisions to work well for the client.  For that reason, you need to know powerful this document is and identify its limits. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” addresses many key provisions to consider in the power of attorney.

First, as a primer, the POA is a document that assigns decision making to another person during your life.  People often do this for when they become incapacitated in life, but also for convenience, such as a spouse having authority to interact with a bank, signing at a remote real estate closing and so on.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.  Also, POAs are for lifetime delegation of decision-making, so they cease to be effective when you die.

If you want more background on what they are, see this classic blog.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/power-of-attorney-planning-for-incapacity/

With all of that said, here are three key provisions to consider within your POA to make it effective for your circumstances.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much.

In recent years I’ve discussed the possibility of extensive gifting quite a lot so that wealthier clients can consider making large gifts for estate tax purposes. In elder law cases this is one of the most key provisions in a POA as it provides options for long term care planning.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Banks tend to build products that provide for this, which is good, but does raise issues within your estate plan.  Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? In most states, Texas included, your POA needs to expressly provide for this power.  So, it is important to consider if you will need this power to adequately control assets in the future.

Can the POA create or amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to create or make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change the terms of the trust, and potentially beneficiaries depending on the terms of the POA.  It is also worth considering this if you’ll need long term care in the future as these provisions assist with qualified income trusts which are helpful in Medicaid planning.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think, and that is especially true with powers crafted to fit your wishes and needs. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

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