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Can My Ex-Spouse Claim My Estate After I Die?

Divorce often alters a person’s estate planning priorities. After all, if you previously signed a will leaving your entire estate to your spouse, you probably want to reconsider that arrangement after your divorce becomes final. California law assumes that any gift you make to an ex-spouse under a pre-divorce will is revoked unless you expressly state otherwise. This assumes that the divorce itself becomes final before one of the spouses dies.

Court Fines Man $15,000 for Trying to Void Divorce After Ex-Wife’s Death

In a recent case, a California appeals court sanctioned a man who attempted to declare his earlier divorce void so that he could inherit from his deceased ex-wife’s estate. According to court records, the couple legally separated in 2009. In November 2010, following extended mediation, the parties filed a stipulated judgment—a divorce settlement—with a California Superior Court judge. A copy of the judgment signed by both spouses and stamped with the judge’s signature was then filed with the court clerk’s office.

The ex-wife died in 2012. She did not have a will. Under California’s intestacy law, her sister was the closest living heir, and she was named administrator of the estate. In September 2014—nearly four years after the divorce settlement was filed—the ex-husband appeared and argued “the judgment was void” and that he was still legally married to the ex-wife at the time of her death. If true, that would mean he, and not the sister, would be the sole heir of the estate.

The husband argued the divorce settlement was void for two reasons: First, it did not technically comply with California law, which required the couple’s retirement and pension plans to be joined as parties to the case; and second, the judgment required an original, rather than a stamped, signature from the judge.

The courts rejected both of these arguments out of hand. As the Court of Appeals explained, regardless of any technical failure to comply with the law, the ex-husband consented to the entry of the judgment. That is, in fact, what a “stipulated” judgment means. Nor was the judgment “void” based on the alleged defects. At best it was “voidable,” and even then, the Court said the ex-husband’s “almost four-year delay in seeking to set aside the judgment prevents him from doing so now.” Accordingly, not only did the appeals court affirm the trial judge’s decision to dismiss the ex-husband’s claims, it further upheld an award of $15,000 in sanctions to the ex-wife’s estate for requiring it to defend against what amounted to legally baseless arguments.

Get Advice From a California Estate Planning Lawyer

The above case is an illustration and not a binding statement of California law. But one lesson to take away is the importance of reviewing your estate plan following a divorce or similar life-altering event. An experienced San Diego estate planning attorney can help review your situation and determine the best course of action. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady if you would like to speak with an estate planning lawyer right away.

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