Is an Ex-Wife Entitled to an Inheritance from Her Former Husband?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “My brother died of COVID-19. Should his ex-wife get an inheritance?” says that it’s unlikely that an ex-wife is entitled to an inheritance from her former husband’s estate.  However, the answer is highly dependent on state law.

There are three main ways property can transfer at death. They each have different rules.

ex-wife entitled to inheritance from her husband
It is not likely that an ex-wife is entitled to an inheritance from her former husband’s estate.

Joint assets. When property is held as Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship (JTWROS), the surviving joint owner automatically becomes the sole owner of the property. Usually, jointly owned property is retitled into individually owned property after the divorce. If this was never done, some states automatically change JTWROS property to a different form of joint ownership, called Tenancy In Common when a divorce is finalized. As a result, with tenants in common property, when one owner dies, his or her 50% ownership interest becomes a probate asset and passes pursuant to his or her will (or the state’s intestacy laws, if they didn’t have a will).

This means that even if the husband in this scenario still owned JTWROS property with his ex-wife when he passed away, she wouldn’t automatically inherit his share. She still has her own 50% share that she owned all along.

Beneficiary designations.  Property can also pass by beneficiary designation, like with life insurance or retirement accounts.

Beneficiary designations are typically updated after a divorce. However, again, ask an experienced estate planning attorney about your state laws. For example, some state’s laws revoke a divorced spouse as beneficiary, even if the beneficiary designation was never updated.

In this situation, even if the husband named his wife as a beneficiary on an insurance policy or retirement accounts and never changed it, she wouldn’t be able to collect.

Probate.  Finally, the third way that property can pass, is through the probate process. This means there’s a will.  If there was no will, it would be pursuant to the state’s intestacy laws.

An ex-spouse is never entitled to inherit property under state intestate statutes.

There’s an important caveats for these rules. They can be superseded by a divorce decree. Therefore, review the divorce decree to see whether it has any relevant language.

Reference: nj.com (Aug. 4, 2020) “My brother died of COVID-19. Should his ex-wife get an inheritance?”

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