Changing beneficiaries during/after California divorce

While you are married, generally you name your spouse as the beneficiary on your life insurance, 401K, pension, etc. Once you get divorced, however, you are going to want to change those beneficiaries. This may sound simple, but it is extremely common for someone to forget and their ex-spouse ends up with their assets upon their death.

Why is that? I can only guess. First, as I have discussed before, during the time your case is in the court system (after you have filed your Petition but before you have your Judgment), you MAY NOT change any of your beneficiaries or your will or trust without consent from the other party. You cannot even sever a joint tenancy without notifying your spouse. But AFTER, when the case is over, you are not only free to do so, but you really need to.

I think some people forget, or once they have their Judgment, they want to put all of the hassle behind them. Don’t do this! You took the effort to get divorced – don’t forget to complete the process and change the beneficiaries on your accounts!

A friend of mine came to me recently because the spouse of a colleague of his had passed away. The only asset this person left was a life insurance policy that named a girlfriend of his from nearly twenty years before. She’s likely to lose her home because her husband, in twenty years, never changed his life insurance policy beneficiary.

Life Insurance and its potential role in California divorce

One of the most difficult aspects of divorce, behind the extreme emotional roller coaster, is the financial aspect. There’s never enough money to go around, and frequently both parties feel like they’re getting the short end of the stick. The reality is that this is just the way it goes when you try to create two households out of one with the same amount of money coming in each month. One associated problem is that the court’s jurisdiction does not extend past a child’s 18th birthday (child support can go on to age 19, but that’s another issue), so the court cannot make orders about who will pay for your children’s education past high school, and how. College costs for a child who is now a toddler are astronomical – somewhere around $250,000-300,000 depending on the school. If you and your ex-spouse do not agree on how you will pay for college, then perhaps it won’t be paid at all. This is where life insurance can come in. Either or both of you can obtain and pay for a policy that will help to fund your children’s education past high school. It’s not very expensive, particularly if the cost is shared, and your child will thank you for putting aside the anger and making a joint effort on behalf of his or her education.

One final note on making that agreement: ensure that you put down in writing (1) what schools the funds will be applicable to (full-time college, trade schools, etc.), (2) what the funds will pay for (just tuition or room and board or books and supplies, or all of the above), and (3) what cuts off the funds (i.e. not attending full-time or grades below a C average).

In addition, life insurance can be taken out on the party who is paying child or spousal support, in the event that the financially-providing party/parent passes.  With the life insurance, the child(ren) and ex-spouse are insured some financial security in the event one parent dies.

Ancillary issues in divorce: Insurance

The divorce process is long, difficult, and can be complex.  At the end of it, most clients/litigants/parties just feel relieved it’s over and don’t want to think about any aspect of the whole process anymore.  This is a dangerous place to be in, regardless of how natural it is after such an ordeal, because many loose ends can ultimately remain loose and come back to hurt you and your family.  We’ll focus on insurance today, but there are other loose ends in terms of financial/college planning, estate planning, and taxes that should also be addressed post-divorce.  With regard to insurance, if you’re getting divorced or have just become divorced, you should:

  1. Update the beneficiaries on your life insurance.  The same is true for any of your other payable on death (POD) accounts or retirement accounts, 401Ks, etc.  You don’t want your ex to get the money should something happen to  you, do you?
  2. Look into health insurance plans and cost.  If you are covered under your spouse’s health insurance plan, once you are divorced, you can no longer be covered by that plan. So you will need to look into COBRA, if that is available, or look into getting your own plan.  This can be a lengthy and difficult process, in California can dramatically affect support calculations, and be shockingly expensive, so the earlier you look into this and are prepared, the better.
  3. Update/change your home and auto insurance.  Most couples will separate their auto insurance, which may mean losing a multiple car discount, and may also lose a combination discount if your home insurance is bundled with your auto insurance. Speaking of home insurance, you want to make sure you update that if one spouse moves out of the family home.  Your best bet is to talk with an experienced insurance broker who can help you.  A broker is better than a captive agent (State Farm, Nationwide, etc.) and much better than trying  your luck online.

These are the main insurances to worry about. Some couples will have to work with long-term care policies or other kinds of insurance, and each circumstance varies depending on the individuals and family involved. But it’s very important not to leave these loose ends untied at the end of a divorce, regardless of how tired you are of the process.  The best way to deal with these things is to have professionals working for you, who make the process easier.

Estate planning “musts” to take care of NOW

I often get asked what the most basic “must dos” or “must haves” are in estate planning.  Here is the answer:

  1. Talk to an estate planning attorney.  Most, like me, offer free consultations, so you don’t have to spend anything but time, and then at least you’ll know and understand your need and risks, and be able to make informed decisions
  2. Talk to a financial advisor.  See above – you only lose your time, and if you find a reputable one (your estate planning attorney should know several fantastic ones, as I do), then you can make sure that as  you grow older, you are working toward your financial goals.

Those two items will give you all the information you need.  But more specifically:

  1. If you have children, decide on and formally nominate a guardian to care for them if you are unable to.  If you don’t decide?  A judge – a stranger – will make the decision for you.
  2. Create a will or trust.  If you don’t decide who will get your stuff, someone else will.  You’ll also pay a lot of money for the privilege.  Again, talking to an estate planning attorney to find out your risks and options costs nothing.  Why remain uninformed?
  3. Make sure you have enough life insurance.  What you think of as “enough” and what is really and truly “enough” should your spouse die may be entirely different amounts.  If one spouse doesn’t work, and the working spouse dies, wouldn’t you want to have enough life insurance to allow the survivor to take time to grieve, take care of the children, and then think about work, instead of having to worry about finding work right away?
  4. Make sure your retirement and life insurance beneficiaries are always up to date.  If you’ve been married for 20 years and your life insurance names your girlfriend of 25 years ago when you pass away?  Then your girlfriend gets the money and your wife doesn’t.  Is that what you want?
  5. Make sure you have long-term care insurance if you need it.  A financial advisor can help you to decide on this, and the earlier you get it, the cheaper it is.
  6. Make sure both spouses know and understand the family finances, even if one spouse does the day-to-day management.  Do not get caught in a situation where one spouse dies and the survivor does not even know what accounts exist.
  7. On that note, put your paperwork in order, or at least in one place.  Even if it’s disorganized in a drawer, make sure all the important paperwork, account statements, estate plan, life insurance, etc. is all in one place and easy to find.  Should you pass away, your family will be going through a rough enough time as it is – don’t make it worse by leaving a scattered financial life.

None of these items are difficult or even time-consuming, but they mean everything in the world to your family should something happen to you.  What are you waiting for?

Estate planning post-divorce: Why it’s critical to your future

Here is a video I did recently on estate planning after your divorce is completed.  All too often, once your divorce is final, the last thing you want to do is more work.  So, changing your beneficiaries, updating your retirements, 401Ks, powers of attorney, etc. gets lost in the shuffle.  But, ask yourself:  Do you want your ex to get the assets you worked your life to accumulate?  Do you want to leave your children with an uncertain financial future?  If you’ve gotten divorced, make sure you’ve taken these essential steps to properly protect your assets, family and future.