Don’t forget to update your New Jersey estate plan after a divorce

Some people think that, once they have gone through the process of drafting a comprehensive estate plan that spells out their wishes regarding incapacity, asset division, long-term care and property allocation, their work is done. They may assume that those documents can still be used even if some circumstances change between the time the plan was created and the time it is administered.

Unfortunately, estate planning isn't a "set it and forget it" kind of proposition. It can be difficult to modify provisions or to take actions that weren't specifically spelled out, and a significant change in the circumstances of the testator (the person to whom the estate plan belongs) or his/her beneficiaries might warrant significant revisions to the plan or an altogether new one.

The impact of divorce

If you were happily married at the time your estate plan was drafted, chances are good that your spouse was named as the primary beneficiary of your assets as well as your power of attorney (the person responsible for making important health care, end-of-life, housing and financial decisions). In the event of a divorce, however, your opinion of your spouse may change, and you may no longer feel comfortable having someone from whom you are estranged hold such sway over your health and your property.

For that reason, you will likely want to name a new power of attorney, draft a new living will and review asset and property allocation in your will or trust. If applicable, you might also need to change beneficiaries on insurance policies, stock and pension accounts and other such funds.

Other life changes

Clearly, an estate plan needs to be able to adapt and change concurrent with major changes in your life, not all of which are directly associated with a divorce. Another example of a life circumstance that would dictate a review of your estate planning documents is the death of a beneficiary. After all, you can't leave property to someone who is already gone, right?

Even if you were diligent and promptly updated your estate plan after a divorce, you'll need to do it once again should you remarry. This is particularly important if you have children from a previous marriage that you want to pass certain property down to; specifically mentioning individual assets and bequeathing them to heirs will ensure that, in the event of a will contest or any ambiguity in the remainder of your estate plan, your wishes with regard to that property are clear.

The importance of clarity and technical compliance

Creating an estate plan may seem like a relatively simple proposition. You may assume that you can just write up a paragraph saying you want to leave your property to your son or daughter and that's the end of it. For many reasons, that is insufficient. There are legal requirements that need to be met for a will or trust to be valid, and there are also things that an estate plan might not be able to do (of which you are likely unaware). For answers to all your estate planning-related questions, seek the advice of a skilled attorney at the Ridgewood, New Jersey, firm of Michael A. Manna and Associates.