Divorce: Remember to Review Your Will!
“It has long been a foundational principle of our common law and the legislation that has governed the law of testamentary succession that a will, properly executed, is the document that authoritatively reflects the genuine and voluntary dispositions of a testatrix.” (Extract from judgment below)
Most people when making wills and estate plans will lean toward leaving all or most of their estate to a spouse in one form or another.
But if things fall apart and divorce looms it is easy in all the stress and hurly burly of the break-up to forget all about your will. Now it may be that you are quite happy to leave things as they are, but it’s far more likely you will want to make changes – big changes.
Either way, it is important to have on your break-up To Do list a big note “Review and change my will”. If you don’t, our law makes your decisions for you – better than nothing perhaps but far from ideal.
The risks of leaving your will unchanged
In terms of our Wills Act, your ex-spouse is excluded from inheriting under your pre-divorce will for a period of 3 months, unless (a very unlikely scenario) your will makes it clear that you wanted your ex-spouse still to benefit despite the divorce.
After 3 months, if you haven’t made a new will your ex-spouse can inherit again because you are assumed to have wanted him/her to remain an heir. In practical terms, you have 3 months to get your act together and make a new will reflecting your new wishes.
But rather than do nothing for 3 months, leave nothing to chance and make your new will as soon as you can. If you do nothing, your preferred heirs (your children perhaps, or other loved ones) are at risk –
- If you die within the 3-month period, your family could find itself in a bitter fight over your will and how you intended your estate to be distributed. Witness the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) case we discuss below.
- If you survive beyond the 3 months, you may have just left everything by mistake to an ex-spouse from whom you are totally estranged.
A case in point
- Shortly before her marriage a wife made a will leaving everything to her husband. She failed to revoke or amend that will after their divorce and committed suicide within the 3-month period.
- Excluded by the Wills Act from inheriting (as set out above) the ex-husband applied to the High Court to have that provision of the Act declared unconstitutional. The High Court ruled against him and he appealed to the SCA.
- The SCA upheld the constitutional validity of the Wills Act provision, and whilst the Court’s detailed reasoning for reaching that conclusion will be of great interest to lawyers, from a lay point of view what really counts is –
- The two risk factors set out above remain in place
- The case serves as a clear warning that not reviewing your will on divorce can easily lead to protracted and bitter litigation, to everyone’s detriment.
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