Revisions to New York’s Estate Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) enacted in 2008 were intended to correct inadvertent failures of a spouse to correct provisions to eliminate ex spouses as beneficiaries. The Matter of Suggs involves just this type of situation. When the decedent and his spouse divorced, the court made provisions concerning the disposition of a life insurance policy which was to be split 60/40 in favor of the decedent. However, taking into account a debt owed by Mrs. Suggs to her husband, court further found that she no longer had a marital interest in the policy.
In a classic example of carelessness, the decedent neglected to remove his ex wife as beneficiary from the policy and she naturally applied to Prudential for payment of the death benefit upon her ex husband’s death years later. Surrogate Barbara Howe noted that “under the prior statute, when a couple divorced, the divorce automatically revoked dispositions under the will and, more recently, transfers under Article 13-4.1 (securities held in transfer-on-death form). L.2005, ch. 325, §3. It did not, however, affect the ex-spouse’s rights to in-trust-for bank accounts (Totten Trusts), life insurance policies, lifetime revocable trusts, or joint tenancies with right of survivorship. The statute now terminates the ex-spouse’s interest in all such assets.
The statute readopts several provisions of its predecessor. The ex-spouse is treated as having predeceased the decedent for purposes of her dispositions. If the spouses remarry, the gift is revived if its revocation happened solely because of the divorce. Property held jointly with right of survivorship transforms upon the divorce into a tenancy in common” (Margaret Valentine Turano, Supp Practice Commentaries, id., 2014 Supp Pamph at 66-67, emphasis added).
these revocation-by-divorce statutory provisions were enacted, at least in part, to prevent “inadvertent” dispositions to former spouses:
“Revocation-by-divorce statutes adopt the presumption that in the vast majority of cases the testator’s failure to revoke his will subsequent to divorce is due to neglect.”
Your lawblogger would like to add some additional thoughts to Surrogate Howe’s logical and useful decision. Yes, the revised EPTL did save the estate from the carelessness of the decedent and prevented his ex spouse from reaping undeserved insurance benefits which the judgment of divorce clearly precluded her from receiving. But consider that long periods of time will often pass from the date of a divorce to the date that one of the spouses dies. Consider also that records may be lost or destroyed during this time and that death often comes at a time of great confusion and emotional distress.
It is not such a good idea to rely on the law to save you in situations such as this where your estate may be confronted by an avaricious former spouse and an insurance company that may or may not be aware of who is entitled to what [ as an aside, consider how many former girlfriends of World War II GIs have reaped the benefits of a GI life insurance policy issued to a young soldier who passed away three generations later having forgotten that the policy ever existed!]. It is a much better idea to periodically review the beneficiary provisions of your life insurance policies, retirement plans , etc to make sure that nothing has slipped through the cracks. Remember also that sometimes when insurance companies and retirement plan administrators merge, data on beneficiaries is accidentally and irretrievably purged. You need to keep on top of these policies yourself while you are healthy and sharp!