Broken Heart Deaths and the Probate Nightmare

Broken heart deaths, while debatable as to the scientific classification of what a “broken heart” actually is, are very real. As you saw recently, Debbie Reynolds passed away the day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, passed away of an unexpected heart attack. Reynolds and Fisher were extremely close and had a very deep connection – like many parents and children and spouses with each other.

The death of someone very close to you can put your body through a lot of physical stress which can exacerbate previously existing conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. Sometimes it’s the last straw before a full blown medical emergency. Reports indicate that Reynolds was taking the unexpected death of Fisher very hard – and an upcoming HBO documentary shows that Reynolds was already dealing with health issues.

This phenomenon is not unique to celebrities. It’s not uncommon for one spouse to pass away and be followed by the other a short time later – sometimes months, weeks, or even days later. This creates huge dilemma in estate planning for a couple of reasons.

The Surviving Spouse Has Little Time to Change Their Own Estate Plan

After the death of a spouse, there are a lot of details and arrangements that have to be dealt with just to carry on with life. Amending the surviving spouse’s estate plan is not a top priority immediately following the deceased spouse’s death. So, if the survivor passes away without amending, the plan is relying on contingencies and alternates to dispose of the estate – which is likely not what the surviving spouse wanted. This makes it incredibly important to keep your plan up-to-date and to make sure that your contingencies and alternates are solid strategies as well. This takes thorough planning from the outset and consistent review and maintenance.

Both Estates Have to be Probated Back-to-Back

Depending on the survivorship provisions in the deceased spouse’s will, both estates may need to be probates in the order of death, rather than each flowing to the remainder beneficiaries. If the surviving spouse is deemed to have “survived” the deceased spouse (North Carolina requires a beneficiaries to survive at least 5 days after the death of the decedent in order to be a beneficiary of their estate – some wills provide 14, 30, 60, or 90 days), the deceased spouse’s estate will have to be passed to the surviving spouse’s estate, then passed to the surviving spouse’s beneficiaries. What a headache!

Avoiding Probate Avoids Theses Issues

Setting up a thorough probate avoidance plan can eliminate these issues by taking the assets and the rules away from the state courts and following the rules of succession you put in place for yourself. In the case of a married couple, the deaths themselves become legally insignificant with a trust-based plan – they simply trigger the change in trustee rather than the need for the Clerk of Court to change legal title to property (probate). Streamlined succession can be the best gift to your family, especially if they’re now dealing with the death of two significant people in their lives.