February 4, 2011

Divorce and Community Property

When two people divorce, or legally speaking dissolve their marriage, there are serious consequences for their estate plans, assuming they have one.

For illustrative purposes, assume that Harry and Wendy married in 1985 and divorced in 2010. During their marriage, the couple had two children, Samuel, born in 1988, and Donna, born in 1990. During the course of their marriage, Harry and Wendy executed various estate planning documents. 

For example in 1995, Harry executed a will in which he bequeathed his Monet oil painting to Wendy as the primary beneficiary and his brother Bob as the alternate beneficiary. Furthermore, Harry inherited some money from a distant heir and deposited the money into a bank account in his name alone and made Wendy the pay-on-death primary beneficiary and Samuel the pay-on-death secondary beneficiary. Moreover, Harry and Wendy owned their home as joint tenants and never changed the title even after the divorce. In 2010 Harry and Wendy sadly divorced, and then in 2011 Harry passed away.


Generally speaking, California law says that upon divorce, all provisions in a will that benefit a former spouse are revoked and the will is interpreted as though the former spouse had predeceased the testator and hence are not entitled to inherit from their former spouse. Prob C § 6122. 

Here, since Harry had divorced Wendy, California law says that Wendy died before Harry (just ignore reality and embrace the legal system for a moment) and thereby Harry’s brother Bob would be entitled to the Monet because Bob survived Harry.

Bank Account

Generally speaking, California law invalidates a nonprobate transfer (which is what a P.O.D. account is) to a former spouse. Prob C §5600(a). Here Harry named Wendy as the P.O.D. beneficiary but later divorced her and thus Prob C §5600(a) would apply, whereby Wendy would not receive any proceeds from the bank account and instead Samuel would.

Home (Joint Tenancy)

Generally speaking, California law says that a joint tenancy between the decedent (the person who died) and a former spouse is severed if the former spouse is not the decedent’s surviving spouse at the time of death. Prob C § 5601. 

This is particularly important because many couples own their homes as joint tenants. For instance, roughly 3 out of every 4 deeds I see from clients who are couples are titled as joint tenants. Regardless, upon the death of one joint tenant, the surviving joint tenant automatically inherits the deceased joint tenant’s interest regardless of what a will or revocable trust dictates. Yet here, because Wendy was not Harry’s spouse at the time of his death, Wendy would not be entitled to inherit Harry’s interest in the property as the surviving owner, since their divorce severed the joint tenancy between the two and made them tenants in common. Consequently, unlike joint tenancy, a tenant in common does not automatically inherit the interest of a deceased tenant in common. So Harry’s heirs would need to go through probate in order to inherit Harry’s half of the property.