Divorce is not just the end of the marriage. Divorce cuts off several important marital and property rights. You may think that all you need is a simple uncontested divorce. However, before you get the judge to sign your divorce decree, you need to understand the rights that will end upon the entry of your divorce judgment.
After you are divorced, you no longer have the right to request alimony. On the other hand, once you are divorced, your spouse cannot get alimony from you unless the claim was pending before divorce. A divorce judgment also cuts off your right to seek an equitable distribution of the marital property and debts. If you and your ex-spouse owned real estate that was titled jointly, you will still have an interest in that property, but you cannot seek to distribute it in equitable distribution. Instead, you will have to seek a non-family law remedy such as a partition action to divide the real estate. If you and your ex-spouse owned personal property together, such as a car, after the divorce it will become the property of the titled owner.
Other rights that terminate upon the granting of a divorce include inheritance rights. Even if spouses are separated, one spouse can inherit from the other before the divorce is granted. After divorce, the right to inherit by intestacy ends. However, if your spouse was a beneficiary in your Will, that provision should be changed after you two are divorced. If you fail to revise your Will after divorce, your ex-spouse may still be able to inherit from you under the Will. Other estate documents that should be reviewed and revised after the divorce include powers of attorney, living wills and healthcare powers of attorney.
Contractual rights can survive the entry of a divorce judgment. For instance, if your spouse is named as a beneficiary on your life insurance policy, he or she may still be able to receive those insurance proceeds if you fail to update the policy. The reason is that a beneficiary in a life insurance policy receives the proceeds as a matter of contract, not statutory inheritance rights. Therefore, unless you want your ex-spouse to receive insurance proceeds from your policy, all insurance contracts should be reviewed and revised after divorce.
Not all family law claims are extinguished by the granting of a divorce. Child custody and child support claims survive the granting of the divorce and can be asserted at any time prior to the child reaching his or her 18th birthday.
The take-away is this. Before you get divorced, make sure that you understand the rights that will be extinguished once that divorce is granted. After the divorce is granted (or even beforehand in some instances) you should review all other important contracts, such as insurance policies, to make sure they still express your wishes. Finally, we recommend that everyone review and update their estate plan on a periodic basis. Major life events such as the birth of a child, a remarriage or the granting of a divorce should trigger those estate planning reviews. Divorce does not have to be catastrophic or contentious. But make sure you understand the effect and consequences flowing from the granting of that divorce judgment before the judge puts pen to paper.